Politics & Policy

Progress Report

Remember Basra?

In an important front-page story in the New York Times Monday, we read this:

Three hundred miles south of Baghdad, the oil-saturated city of Basra has been transformed by its own surge, now seven weeks old. In a rare success, forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki have largely quieted the city, to the initial surprise and growing delight of many inhabitants who only a month ago shuddered under deadly clashes between Iraqi troops and Shiite militias.

And this:

Among the many uncertainties are whether the government, criticized for incompetence at the start of the operation, can maintain the high level of troops here. But in interviews across Basra, residents overwhelmingly reported a substantial improvement in their everyday lives. “The circle of fear is broken,” said Shaker, owner of a floating restaurant on Basra’s famed Corniche promenade, who, although optimistic, was still afraid to give his full name, as were many of those interviewed.

And this:

The principal factor for improvement that people in Basra cite is the deployment of 33,000 members of the Iraqi security forces after the March 24 start of operations, which allowed the government to blanket the city with checkpoints on every major intersection and highway. Borrowing tactics from the troop increase in Baghdad, the Iraqi forces raided militia strongholds and arrested hundreds of suspects. They also seized weapons including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and sophisticated roadside bombs that officials say were used by Iranian-backed groups responsible for much of the violence. Government forces have now taken over Islamic militants’ headquarters and halted the death squads and “vice ‘enforcers’” who attacked women, Christians, musicians, alcohol sellers and anyone suspected of collaborating with Westerners. Shaker’s floating restaurant stands as one emblem of the change since then. Just two months ago, he said, masked men in military uniforms walked into the packed dining room and abducted a businessman at gunpoint. The man was never seen again, and the restaurant closed. Now, however, customers who fled that evening are pressing the 34-year-old owner to stay open later at night, so they can enjoy their unaccustomed freedom from the gangs, which once banned the loud Arabic pop music now blaring from Shaker’s loudspeakers. “Now it is very different,” he said. “After we heard that the lawless people have been arrested or killed, we have a kind of courage.”

And this:

Haider, a policeman at a checkpoint outside the Sadrists’ former headquarters, said his family had been threatened, even at his home in the capital. “I have spent 60 days in Basra and haven’t been home to Baghdad,” he said. “I will be killed if I go now. My family have received dozens of fliers with threats from the Mahdi Army.” Nevertheless he, like many others, said the evacuation of the factions from their once-untouchable headquarters had brought about a psychological shift. Outside the Sadr office, Iraqi soldiers now sit atop the roof, their tripod-mounted machine guns overlooking the tin-roofed Sadrist prayer hall, which lies half-demolished. “The Mahdi Army used to use this office like the Baathists when they were The Party,” Haider said. “They were ruling like the government of a state. They stopped police doing their duty, from implementing the law.” Noting that the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, once much stronger than the Mahdi Army, had been routed, he said, “The Mahdi Army will meet the same fate exactly, and worse.”

It’s worth recalling that during the congressional testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in April, Democrats used Basra as a key talking point. Basra was supposed to demonstrate all that is going wrong in Iraq. Senator McCaskill (D., Mis.), for example, insisted that Basra was a terrible loss for Prime Minister Maliki, a big win for Muqtada al-Sadr, and evidence that the Iraq project was falling apart.

In fact, as Petraeus and Crocker said at the time, Maliki’s offensive in Basra was impulsive and poorly planned — but at least the impulse was the right one (it showed that Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, was willing to go after Shiite militia), and, with American help, things very quickly began to improve on the security side. More significantly, the Basra offensive — which is being driven primarily by Iraqi Security Forces — looks to be not simply a tactical but a strategic political victory for Maliki. One person whom I trust and who knows a great deal about these matters told me that the “political situation has been transformed.” Indeed, across the political spectrum Iraqis have rallied to Maliki. Sunnis who had boycotted the government are now willing to join it, given Maliki’s willingness to go after Shiite extremists. The Turks and Arab Gulf States, who never imagined Maliki would do such a thing, have also gained new respect for him.

Basra — Iraq’s second largest city, home to the country’s main port, and its only point of access to the Persian Gulf — is one more example of a key area of Iraq that is being reclaimed. As the Times article makes clear, the progress is fragile and reversible, as is almost everything in Iraq. But what war critics took to be a devastating loss looks to be a significant and positive achievement. It is evidence that the counterinsurgency approach embraced by Petraeus, when tried, appears to work everywhere (Basra was failing precisely because, as Max Boot wrote in March, “The British basically abdicated their counterinsurgency role in the south and allowed thugs to take over Basra. The police force is particularly corrupt. Maliki is now sending the Iraqi Security Forces to do what the Brits wouldn’t: clean up Dodge.”)

Yet critics of the Iraq war remain deeply wed to their defeatist narrative, regardless of the facts on the ground. They have settled on their views; apparently, no observable progress to the contrary will persuade them that the facts do not correspond to their rendering of the situation. The good news is that they are looking more and more desperate in their efforts to prove that America is failing in Iraq. We are in fact making substantial progress, both in terms of advancing America’s national security interests and in advancing an admirable moral end (the liberation and stabilization of Iraq after having lived for decades under a particularly wicked tyranny). That such progress seems to agitate the Left and their antiwar allies to no end tells you a great deal about them — and none of it is particularly good.

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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