Judging by the TV news I saw while consuming the morning coffee, the MSM is doing its usual inept job of explaining the flare-up in fighting in Iraq. Being unwilling to waste time backgrounding the conflict in the first place, they have no basis for analysis but sensational claims of a 'civil war'. Fortunately, the blogosphere provides, and some real analysis was in hand minutes after hitting the nets. The ever invaluable Strategy Page sets the tactical stage:
In the last year, the number of terror attacks has sharply declined, as the Shia Arab criminals and militias are not interested in slaughtering civilians. They were interested in maintaining control over neighborhoods, criminal enterprises, and augmenting political control. Many of these militias were supported by Iran, a neighbor that wanted to have more control over what went on inside Iraq. But Iran is run by the Shia clergy, and the prospect of a religious dictatorship in Iraq turned off many Iraqis. This was no secret to anyone, and the Iraqi government, run by more independent minded Shia, finally agreed that the Iran backed militias could not be tolerated. This has led to a recent campaign to take apart the more troublesome factions. The worst of the lot are in Basra, where Shia militias make a lot of money off the oil and port operations down there. These gangs were getting greedy, and stealing more than the government was willing to tolerate. Thus in the last week, thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers moved into Basra and began arresting members of the Mahdi Army (run by Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr). At the same time, police moved in on Mahdi Army groups in Baghdad. But Basra was where the money was, and the fighting was expected to be long and difficult. On March 26th, the government gave the Mahdi Army three days to surrender, or face some real violence. For some Shia gangsters, this seems to mean American smart bombs. That rumor is all over Basra, and the bad guys are truly scared. Hiding out in a mosque won’t help, because American ground troops are not involved. Iraqi cops have no problem clearing out a mosque.
The Mahdi Army apparently believed that firing mortar shells at the Green Zone (where the senior Iraqi politicians live and work) would be a good way to strike back. But the Green Zone is a big place, and a few mortar shells rarely hit anything important. The police do know who lives where, and are raiding the homes of key Shia gangsters. The gangs look to their Iranian advisors, and get no answers, other than “fight hard.” That may not be enough. While Iran believes that eventually the Americans will go home, the Iraqi police are at home, and they want to send the Iranians back across the border.
The best strategic frame I've seen comes from commenter "Major John" at Jule Crittenden's place. It's short and pithy and worth a look, but here's the nut of it:
The fight up North is the fight to run AQI out of Iraq. The fight down South is the fight to see which way Iraq will go once AQI is beaten.
NB: North is the US and IA vs. Al Qaeda in Mosul. South is the IA vs. JAM in Basra.