U.S. Officials Question Maliki's Basra Operation

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The Bush administration hailed the Iraqi-led assault in Basra last week as a "defining moment" for the Iraqi military. But New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon reports U.S. officials in Baghdad are uneasy with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's impulsive leadership style.


There's an assessment of last week's Iraqi offensive in Basra in today's New Times, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki doesn't come off looking very good. Yes, the Iraqi army showed it could deploy over distances. But to quote the Times story, "al-Maliki overestimated his military's abilities and underestimated the scale of the resistance. And the Iraqi prime minister also displayed an impulsive leadership style that did not give his forces or that his most powerful allies - the American and British military - time to prepare." That's a quotation from the story.

Joining us from Baghdad is New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon. And Michael Gordon, the Times quotes U.S. officials as saying that the operation in Basra was not what they expected. What did they expect and what happened instead?

Mr. MICHAEL GORDON (Military Correspondent, New York Times): Well, the situation in Basra has been of concern to the Iraqi government for some time. In over the past several weeks, there's been a lot of planning going on within the Iraqi government and with the Americans on an effort to try to gradually regain control of Basra.

What was striking, however, was that the operation that was carried out was not the operation that in fact was being planned. The Americans and the Iraqis were planning something that would be much more deliberate that would take more time. And they were in the process of trying to flush out for details when Prime Minister Maliki notified Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus that he plan to personally lead an operation in Basra in the coming days.

SIEGEL: Now, there was some confusion in Washington as to how well-informed the U.S. was of the operation. How much advanced notice did the U.S. have?

GORDON: Well, on March 21st, Good Friday, Ambassador Crocker was informed by the Iraqi government that Prime Minister Maliki was going to Basra to lead an operation, and General Petraeus met with him the next day, which was a Saturday. The forces begin to arrive on the following Monday. And by Tuesday, the operation was on.

So I think it's fair to say that the Iraqis and the prime minister himself did inform the Americans that there was going to be an operation. On the other hand, the Americans really did not have a clear idea that it was going to be the, sort of, major combat that it did on Tuesday.

SIEGEL: A big question about this operation was to what extent was it the Iraqis doing the job for themselves? And to what to extent was the U.S., or for that matter, Britain involved? What would you say?

GORDON: Well, I would say it's primarily the Iraqis doing the job for themselves. And I've seen this in other parts of Iraq. You know, the forces on the ground that are doing the fighting are the Iraqi forces. The planning was an Iraqi planning. But the Iraqis depend on the Americans, and to certain extent, the Brits, you know, for what they call enablers. For example, air strikes or reconnaissance.

In this operation, the Iraqis did some of the logistics, but they need the American air controllers on the ground to call on air strikes. They certainly needed the assistance of some senior American officials who were rushed down there. Those sorts of key enablers are very important for an Iraqi operation, and will continue to be important for some time.

SIEGEL: There's one last thing I want you explain that Prime Minister al-Maliki, I gather from the article of the New York Times, took actions in Basra based on his prior experience elsewhere in the country where he felt he had done similarly. Explain what the president might have been for al-Maliki that made him more confident than perhaps he should have been.

GORDON: The officials appoint - it was actually made to me on the record by Ambassador Crocker. He called this Basra campaign. He said that al-Maliki thought he would have a Karbala moment. And what happened was last August, there was a Shiite and Shia fighting near the shrine in Karbala. It became a rather bloody melee. And the Iraqis cramped down to Karbala, and Maliki himself went to the scene, fired the police commanders. They cleaned towers for some of the Iraqi security forces. And today, there's a certain (unintelligible) border in Karbala in a very tiny American presence. So if Maliki thought because he had success in Karbala that Basra would be easy, I think that may have proved to have been a miscalculation.

SIEGEL: Well, Michael Gordon, thank you very much for talking with us today.

GORDON: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: Michael Gordon, military correspondent for the New York Times. He spoke to us from Baghdad.

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