That battle, which saw al-Maliki rush down to the presidential palace in the country’s second largest city to direct the army’s fight, only to be spirited away by an American air rescue team when he was in danger of being captured or killed, is indeed a defining moment. (It might even have been a trial run for the eventual rescue of the US ambassador and the American commander in Iraq from the Green Zone at some future date.)
A year, a thousand American deaths, uncounted tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, $150 billion in US taxpayer money and countless repetitions of the phrase “the surge is working” by administration hacks and by Republican presidential candidate John McCain later, it’s clear that the extra 30,000 troops the US shipped over or held over in Iraq accomplished nothing.
The country is still a basket case.
The battle of Basra ended—at least for now—with Moqtada al-Sadr stronger than ever, his fighters still armed and in control of the city, and of their stronghold in the slums of Sadr City, Baghdad. It concluded with a cease-fire agreement—negotiated by Iraqi governmet offials who, embarrassingly, had to go hat in hand to meet al-Sadr in his headquarters in Iran—under which the Iraqi army and police must stop attacking al-Sadr’s forces, as they have been doing for months, and must release members of his forces currently being held captive.
As a “defining moment,” this battle, which reportedly was initiated at US instigation, and in which US forces played a significant role in directing Iraqi military actions, providing air support, and injecting special forces, was the definition of a defeat. No wonder a week later the Bush administration was trying to put out the word that it had not been involved in the fiasco.
As in 2004, the last time al-Sadr frontally attacked US forces, his Mahdi Brigades showed that they are committed, fearless, and able, despite being outgunned, to outfight even the world’s mightiest army on their home turf.
If anyone wanted a sign that it was time for the US to pack it up and go home, this was it.
Had the US not plucked al-Maliki from his embattled fortress in Basra, he would have ended up being paraded through the streets of Basra with a plaque on his chest saying “American puppet” (that’s if he were lucky). Instead, he has survived to serve his American masters another day. (And let's give Maliki his due: at least he had the guts to go lead his troops. It's hard to picture Bush or Cheney directiing American forces from a bunker in Baghdad...or anywhere remotely unsafe.)
John McCain has to be privately ruing the day he decided to hitch his star to the “surge” and to General David Petraeus, it’s author and defender.
As defining moments go, the battles in Basra and Sadr City should also serve as fair warning to those advocating a war against Iran that things might not go so well for American forces. The Mahdi forces, after all, have gotten their inspiration and some training from Iranian forces, and are showing themselves to be skilled urban fighters. US forces, even stretched as thinly as they are in Iraq, might be able to handle a conventional attack by Iranian forces on open desert terrain in Iraq, but they would be up against something entirely different were they to enter Iranian terroritory, and try to conquer Iranian cities.
The real lesson to be taken from this latest fiasco in the running disaster that is Bush’s and Cheney’s war in Iraq is that it is time for it to end.
Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton are both still playing it cautious, afraid to say what really needs to be said—that the US needs to get its troops out not over the course of a year or nine months, but yesterday.
They should pack up and go, blow up what military equipment they can’t bring with them, and leave the porta-potties and dining halls for the locals to enjoy.
They should take heart from another defining moment that occurred yesterday. That was when President Bush went out on the field in RFK Stadium to throw the opening pitch for the first game of the season for the Nationals. As he walked out onto the field, loud booing could be heard from the stands. It then subsided until he threw his pitch to the Nationals’ manager (it was way high). Then it became a roar again when Bush waved a last time to the crowd before disappearing from the field.
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This story was published on April 1, 2008.