Central to the Bush-Petraeus Iraq strategy is to pacify and confuse American public opinion during the 2008 elections, an approach Gen. Petraeus calls "slowing down the American clock" to gain time for the counterinsurgency to continue. This week's events in Basra suggest that US strategy is collapsing amidst its own contradictions.
This is the most important opportunity for critics to question the "surge" since it began last year.
Here is what is happening.
To quell the Sunni insurgency and create an image of gradual progress, the US has insisted provincial elections be held in Iraq this October, one month before the American elections. The expectation is that disenfranchised groups who boycotted the 2005 elections will gain significant representation in the Iraqi parliament, a prospect that threatens the sectarian coalition of Shi'a and Kurdish parties now controlling the regime. The Shi'a bloc includes Maliki's Dawa and the former Supreme Command of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI]. Their rivals are the impoverished Shi'a followers of Moktada al-Sadr of Sadr City and many towns in the South, whose military forces are known as the Mahdi Army.
Maliki agreed to the provincial elections, it appears, in exchange for Bush's and Petraeus' permission to launch a crushing offensive against the Sadr forces who have come to power on the streets of Basra in the wake of Britain's withdrawal. Maliki and his US sponsors call them "criminal gangs", but it is clear that Maliki's intent is to weaken or destroy the Sadr forces before the election.
The four-day offensive has failed so far, provoking widespread violence from Basra to Mahmudia, Hilla, Diwaniya, Kut and the streets of Baghdad. Hundreds have been killed or wounded. Maliki's forces are being exposed as unable to fight without US airpower bombarding positions as small as those for mortar crews. The prospect of US or British intervention in Basra grows by the hour. Tens of thousands of Shi'a are protesting on the streets of Sadr City.
So much for the surge. The US is now in panic mode, trying to ensure the survival of its unpopular client regime in Baghdad.
This is much more than a power struggle between Shi'a sects. The forces of Moktada al-Sadr consistently oppose the US occupation itself and call for American troop withdrawals. al-Sadr himself has outwitted the US commanders who have tried everything from arresting him to coopting him since 2003. Now Petraeus finds himself dependent on al-Sadr's unilateral cease-fire to keep the lid on Baghdad, while at the same time backing Maliki's war against al-Sadr's militias in Baghdad.
Petraeus is due to testify before Congress April 8-9, and faces the greatest public relations crisis of his tenure in Iraq. It is an opportunity for the presidential candidates to be questioned about the viability of their proposals to leave thousands of American advisers and trainers behind - on the failing side of a sectarian war, as the events in Basra are revealing.