A week ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to crush militias loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the southern oil city of Basra and in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Six days later, he ended up suing for peace with people he described as "worse than al-Qaida." Now he is weakened, and dealing with the aftermath.
His decision to drive Shiite militias out of Basra was meant to illustrate resolve. He told the Iraqi people there would be no retreat, no talks, no negotiation. But when the fighting spread to Sadr strongholds across the country, four members of the Iraqi parliament quietly traveled to the holy city of Qom in Iran and hammered out a cease-fire. The week drew to a close with hundreds of Iraqis dead, the prime minister weakened and Sadr stronger than ever.
"It doesn't look very good for Mr. Maliki, launching a campaign and giving an ultimatum to the Sadrists and then accomplishing nothing," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group: "Already there are rumors in the Green Zone today that ... Adel Abdul Mehdi, one of the senior leaders of the Supreme Council" will be the next prime minister. "I am not sure that will happen, but the fact that this is being rumored is significant."
In post-invasion Iraq, politics grow from the muzzle of a gun. Maliki has always ruled from a weakened position because he represents a party that doesn't have its own militia. He came to power as the compromise choice of parties that do. If Iraqi security forces had performed last week, Maliki would have emerged emboldened. Instead, he came out bowed.
"Clearly, the Iraqi security forces cannot stand on their own. They have shown they cannot in this internal policing effort, and they certainly cannot defend the country, which is what an army is supposed to be doing," Hiltermann said. "The United States provided air support and some Special Forces support for the campaign in Basra, and that didn't clearly tip the balance. The American generals know the Iraqi army is very far from the army it is supposed to become."
Iraqis may be sensing that, too. They spent last week watching as Sadr's Mahdi Army militia ran roughshod over Iraqi security forces. The two sides fought to a stalemate until American forces finally swooped in to help. The palace in Basra where Maliki was personally overseeing the operation came under heavy fire. There were some reports that the Americans had to evacuate him to a nearby palace.
In the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi parliament are located, diplomats were holed up all week — having to take cover from a barrage of mortar shells and rocket attacks that rained down on them.
All this violence comes just days before the head of coalition forces, Gen. David Petraeus, and the ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, update U.S. lawmakers on the war. For now, both the Americans and the Iraqis seem determined to accentuate the positive. Defense Secretary Robert Gates glossed over the fact that Maliki had promised a "decisive and final battle."
United Iraqi Alliance parliament member Abbas al-Bayati, a Maliki supporter, was similarly upbeat. "These events have shown Maliki to be a first-rate statesman," he said. "He is a brave man determined to face the outlaws."
Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, says Maliki's popularity will surely take a hit. "Everyone thought he would be decisive," he said. "I think his popularity will go down, yes, that is what I expect."
The Iraqi Health Ministry said nearly 500 people were killed and 900 were wounded in the latest fighting. One resident from Baghdad's Sadr City, which saw some of the fiercest battles, bitterly said Maliki was no better than Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. "Maliki signed the execution decree against Saddam for killing 150 people," he said. "He has killed more in this war."
Maliki went on Iraqi television Monday night sounding more humbled than defiant. Among other things, he asked the people who stole government vehicles during the violence to please return them. "People who have taken vehicles that belong to the government should give them back," he said. "I am ready to give them another one, but they first must give the state car back."
Much of what occurred last week had to do with political parties jockeying for position ahead of provincial elections in October. Most people see last week's violence as Round One in what is expected to be a very violent political season in Iraq.