- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The heavy fighting taking place in Iraq’s third-largest city and most critical oil-exporting center should be a cautionary note as Washington prepares for Gen. David Petraeus’ congressional testimony less than two weeks from now. Instead of obsessing over how long any “pause” in reducing troop levels might be, official Washington should understand that it may be necessary to increase U.S. force levels in some parts of Iraq, with Basra the most prominent example.

Thirteen months ago, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared Great Britain’s military operation in Basra to be “successful” and “complete,” and just over three months ago British troops transferred control of Basra province to the Iraqi government, saying that Iraqi forces were ready to take over. Late last year, British troops left Basra and moved to an airbase five miles away. That’s where they were on March 25, when fighting broke out involving Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and other Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi military, which launched a major operation involving close to 30,000 troops and police forces, with more on the way. The Baghdad government ordered the operation to break the stranglehold which the Shi’ite militias had on Basra, an increasingly anarchic city where kidnappings have soared since the British pullout and where women were being randomly mutilated and killed for “un-Islamic behavior.”

The most prominent of the militias responsible for the escalating violence are backed by Iran and affiliated with political parties that make up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition. Perhaps the most remarkable development that has taken place so far was Mr. Maliki’s decision to visit Basra yesterday to supervise the Iraqi military operations against these groups and his announcement that if the fighting continued for another 72 hours, he was prepared to take more drastic measures.

As the military campaign got underway in Basra, the Iranian militias and their supporters launched attacks against government targets in other Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, where mortar shells and rockets struck the Green Zone. Checkpoints also suddenly appeared in parts of the capital — some of them controlled by the militias. Meanwhile, there are growing questions about whether Mr. Sadr will continue his “cease-fire” with Iraqi forces and whether he still maintains control over his own militia.

Writing in this newspaper yesterday, Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon makes a powerful point with which we agree: To ensure the protection of Iraq’s oil economy and to prevent terrorist violence, it may be necessary right now to increase U.S. force levels in Basra and the northern city of Mosul, where al Qaeda is attempting to regroup after being chased out of Baghdad. Basra should serve as a reminder of the dangers of premature troop withdrawal.

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