The Iraqi government’s military assault on the southern Iraqi city of Basra at the end of March – which drew in both US and British forces, and sparked fighting in Baghdad and the south that claimed an estimated 600 lives – appears to have been as much an attempt to disrupt British plans for the area as a blow against the powerful Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
Noting the key role envisioned for Iraqi lieutenant-general Mohan al-Furayji in British plans for Basra, the Independent reported on 27 March: “The British were said to be ‘comfortable’ with Lt-Gen Mohan’s plans to combat the militias in Basra some time in the summer after suitable conditions had been established.”
These conditions are said to have been a build-up of resources, economic projects on the ground, a closure of the Iranian border and the offer of amnesty to the Shia fighters.
This timetable was disrupted by Iraqi prime minister Maliki’s push into Basra on 24 March, without any of the helpful conditions being established, and offering a 72-hour rather than a 42-day amnesty period.
Another key difference is that Mohan was apparently intending to move against all militias, whereas the prime minister took on only Sadr’s Mehdi Army, leaving in peace the Badr Brigade (the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, part of Maliki’s governing coalition).
Against Mohan & Moqtada
Perhaps because of this intention to tackle all militias, or for other reasons that are yet to emerge, Maliki seems to have felt threatened by British plans in Basra, and so, as the Telegraph’s Con Coughlin reported, “Mr al-Maliki’s offensive was aimed as much at removing General Mohan as dealing with the militias”, using tactics “deliberately designed to undermine everything the British have tried to achieve”.
Coughlin notes that Maliki also “sought to remove the British-appointed police chief Jalil Khalaf, who has also played a central part in British plans to disarm the militias”. Both men were sacked (“promoted to Baghdad”) on 16 April.
Such was Maliki’s suspicion of the British that he did not inform them of the impending assault, briefing US officials on 22 March, but excluding the local British commander from the planning, according to the New York Times.
This left major-general Barney White-Spunner, British commander in Basra, in blissful ignorance on 20 March: “I don’t want to pretend the place is perfect – it’s not. But it is improving and, given where it was, it’s getting better all the time.”
Despite being locked out of the planning or command of the attack (according to The Times, Maliki refused to see Britain’s most senior officer in Basra, brigadier Julian Free, during the operation), British forces were sucked into the fighting, with RAF planes firing “warning shots” – later killing six with an airstrike on north Basra, according to the British military itself.
Sadrists, who point out that the movement had been observing a ceasefire for over six months at the time of the assault, believe Maliki’s coalition is attempting to weaken the movement before local elections in October.
A US intelligence officer in Washington concurs, interpreting the assault as an attempt “to weaken the Mahdi Army and the affiliated political party of the renegade cleric Moktada al-Sadr before provincial elections in the south”.
At stake is control of Iraq’s only port city and the region’s oil fields.
Patrick Cockburn writes in CounterPunch: “the most important battles likely to be waged in Iraq this year will be within the Shia community.”
Disgust with the Iraqi government led Con Coughlin, a long-time advocate of the British presence, to conclude: “When the Iraqi government declares war on the British Army, the time has come to pack up and go home… that moment has arrived.”