Everyone's been weighing in on what's happening in Iraq these days... sorry to be late to the party, but I'm guessing that most readers don't need me to recount what's happened while I've been away. Y'all read the papers. I've been following the twists and turns as reported in the Arab and Iraqi press over the weekend, but frankly the Arab and Iraqi press are just as confused as the American media about why this all happened and what's transpiring on the ground. All the theories we've been running through are circulating there, too - from the Iran-centric to the US-centric, from the Maliki-centric to the ISCI-centric - as are the conflicting reports from different parts of Basra and Baghdad and beyond. This confusion strikes me as itself politically significant.
The most plausible reading of all this, to me, is that Maliki's circle really believed that they could strike a quick, decisive blow against the Sadrists, which would improve the chances of ISCI and pro-government candidates in the provincial elections expected in October and make the government look strong and competent. Evidently they misjudged the real balance of power, got bogged down militarily, and were forced to backpedal. While Maliki's first instinct (and Sadr's) was to up the ante and heat up the rhetoric, cooler heads now seem to have prevailed and both sides reportedly agreeing to the the nine point truce terms issued by Moqtada al-Sadr. It does seem rather significant that Iran became the preferred intermediary for talks involving Sadr himself and a delegation from ISCI and Dawa (whatever the Iranian role in the actual mediation).
Here are some preliminary thoughts, then, about where this might be going - keeping in mind how quickly things have been developing and how easily trends could change. If the fighting peters out and the deal outlined in Sadr's nine points is upheld, then the outcome looks like a serious political defeat for Maliki, given his own stated goals. After promising a decisive victory over the Jaysh al-Mahdi, and ruling out negotiations with those he declared "worse than al-Qaeda", he appears to be settling for a deal in which JAM does not surrender its weapons and the government promises to end the arrests and raids which had been infuriating the Sadrists for months. That sounds like status quo ante, with some possibility of long-standing Sadrist complaints being addressed.
But before declaring victory for one side or the other, everyone should keep in mind that in these situations the fight only begins with the military encounter (think about Hezbollah during and after the 2006 war with Israel - update: I hadn't seen James Joyner's argument here when I wrote this, but it's appropriate). What matters is not whether it looks to me, or to you, that Maliki lost - it's what Iraqis, Arabs and Iranians, and the other players end up thinking. Before issuing any verdict, we'll have to assess the coming propaganda battle to frame the events, and the implementation of any agreement.
First, there's the propaganda battle to interpret the results of the campaign, which is well underway and will likely intensify. Both sides took some serious military and political losses, innocents took fire from all sides, nerves are raw, and much will depend on how Iraqis perceive the outcome. It's safe to guess that both sides will declare victory. The Sadrists will likely argue that they withstood the full force of the Iraqi Army with some American support, demonstrated their ability to wreak havoc if provoked, and defied the demand to turn in their weapons. Maliki and his supporters will argue that the offensive succeeded in forcing Sadr to disown "criminal militias", and that the truce acknowledged the legitimacy of a crackdown, while defending the performance of the Iraqi Army and highlighting any sign of Iraqi public support it can find. In other words, the political battle to convince Iraqi (and American) public opinion about what happened and who's to blame is yet to come, and could go either way.
Second, and related, there's the implementation of any deal. A lot of Iraqi voices are already warning that any truce may prove fragile. Both sides might fail to live up to their end, either out of bad faith or out of an inability to impose control over their own people. If Iraqi forces continue to harrass and arrest Sadrists despite the agreement, or if the Sadrists decide to hand in their guns after all or do not honor Sadr's call to stand down, then the truce will look different. Early signs are mixed; despite Sadr's order, the Green Zone continues to be bombarded, and an odd article on the
Sadrist website Nahrain net [corrected: link was to Nahrain, not Nahrainnet - which explains the oddity of the article] claims that Sadr has lost control of his movement in Basra, while Maliki's office continues to talk of finishing the campaign. In other words, while it's clear that Maliki failed to achieve the decisive victory he needed, on both the battle for public opinion and the actual resolution of the fighting, it's really too early to tell who will emerge the victor.
Let me be somewhat contrarian here and take a somewhat longer view. I actually agree in part with CIA director Michael Hayden, who argued the other day that the campaign could be positive if it restored the sovereignty of the Iraqi state over Basra. I've been arguing for many months for the urgency of establishing some semblance of effective Iraqi sovereignty, defined in Weberian terms as a monopoly on the legitimate means of violence. The best-case scenario here might be that the Sadr-Maliki truce evolves into a shared effort to extend the sovereignty of the Iraqi state, with the Sadrists and the government working together to curb extralegal armed activities. I don't think this was the real purpose of the mission, nor do I agree that this sort of military campaign without a prior political consensus was the right way to do it, nor do I expect it to happen. But if there's any chance to spin some gold out of the mess than that's where efforts should now be focused.
Finally, in the American debate to come, the moral hazard question I raised last week will have to be addressed. Everyone is arguing over whether it is conceivable that Maliki could have acted independently, either politically or logistically. He and his supporters continue to claim that he did. American officials continue to largely back him on this, both in my own private conversations and in the reporting (although one report did mention that Petraeus was briefed by Mowaffik al-Rubae in advance). The main issue seems to have been the timing, not the campaign itself - preparations seemed to be for a June campaign, after the Petraeus/Crocker hearings, with Maliki for whatever reason pushing it forward. That would have to raise serious questions for Americans to ponder. Heck, I hope that it's true, and that the Iraqi government has decided that it really is the sovereign power and doesn't need to consult with the American representatives before launching major military offensives. Great! Because then, why shouldn't that government carry on being sovereign without 150,000 American troops?
Enough rambling... off to real work.
(NOTE - added an update, realized it was getting too long, deleted it and moved it up to a new post above. Apologies if that confused anyone!)