Basra tensions

ONE would not expect militants responsible for fresh violence in Basra to be too impressed or intimidated by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s 72-hour ultimatum to lay down arms or face “severe penalties”.

Taking on government forces after breaking the peace that had held for more than half a year, Mehdi army loyalists were no doubt prepared for a fight to the end, which leaves little pressure in the government’s ‘or else’ warning.

This particular episode of renewed hostility comes at an awkward time for a White House already struggling with justifying continuous postponements in wrapping up the controversial troop surge. Though the surge was in no way successful in ending the violence, the hundreds of thousands on the streets did force a reduction in fighting, primarily because of the time-barred nature of the initiative that militants responded to with a wait-it-out strategy. Also, a major reason for the temporary reduction was Shia clerics’ half-year peace deal with the occupying forces.

Now, with the surge’s mandated period over and the signs of renewed violence preventing the scheduled pullout, the Sadr-triggered unrest is well timed from the militants’ point of view, especially since the fighting is spilling over into other cities, including Baghdad. While adding to the incalculable horror of ordinary Iraqis, latest developments vindicate critics’ fierce questioning of the surge a year ago, asking what could be achieved by further pressuring an already overextended US army to only delay the day of reckoning.

The billions spent on what has proved a useless exercise over the last year would have been much better used in restoring elements of daily life still eluding most Iraqis, like water and power. Dubbing the surge a success, as President Bush and Vice-President Cheney have made a habit of doing lately, implies advocating permanent settlement of the increased lot inside Iraq, a clearly unviable strategy.

The biggest problem delaying meaningful progress in Iraq is the present White House’s mindset that does not allow for admitting glaring mistakes responsible for much of the carnage. Even as the insurgency has assumed a life of its own, and bickering factions no longer necessarily need foreign and government troops to whet their appetite, official strategy makes no room for a thorough policy-revision.

One can only lament the unending downturn at play in Iraq with no manner of comforting sufficing for the Iraqi people, which is understandable. As Basra burns it evokes poignant memories of a time that now seems long gone, when its Shatt al-Arab waterway setting and central location for commerce and oil exports made it a bustling hub of activity. Even if curfews and troop deployments force temporary lids on fighting, wider tensions do not appear easing even in the long run.

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