By Ross Colvin
BAGHDAD, March 31 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s crackdown on militias in the southern oil port of Basra appears to have backfired, exposing the weakness of his army and strengthening his political foes ahead of elections.
U.S. President George W. Bush has praised the crackdown, calling it a "defining moment" for Iraq, but it has unleashed a wave of destabilising violence in southern Iraq and in Baghdad that risks undoing the security improvements of the past year.
It has also exposed a deep rift within Iraq’s Shi’ite majority — between the political parties in Maliki’s government and followers of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Analysts say Iraqis may be about to witness a new phase in the cycle of violence that has gripped the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 — intra-Shi’ite bloodletting that could tear Iraq apart and more deeply embroil U.S. forces.
Sadr on Sunday pulled back from all-out confrontation against Iraqi security forces and their U.S. backers, ordering his Mehdi Army militia to stop fighting. While Basra was reported to be calm on Monday, mortar attacks shook Baghdad.
"It will be a short honeymoon, especially with election time coming up," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.
Provincial elections are due to take place by October, with the Sadrists, who boycotted the last polls in 2005, vying for control of the mainly Shi’ite, oil-producing south with a powerful rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
"The stand-off is not over yet, it’s only a truce ... provincial elections will trigger the battle again," predicted Hazem al-Nuaimi, a political analyst based in Baghdad.
Maliki flew to Basra last Tuesday to personally oversee a military operation he said was aimed at "cleaning up" the lawless city, which is controlled by criminal gangs and militias allied to various Shi’ite political parties.
The operation was lauded by U.S. and British officials as evidence of the growing strength of the Iraqi army, but by the weekend it had largely stalled, with Iraqi troops having failed to dislodge the gunmen from their strongholds.
Embarrassingly, Iraq’s defence minister had to admit that despite much preparation, his forces were not ready for such fierce resistance. U.S. and British forces have intervened, launching air and artillery strikes to support Iraqi troops.
The fighting provoked a furious backlash by Mehdi Army fighters in other towns and cities in the oil-producing south. Hundreds have been killed in violence that Iraqi security forces have struggled to contain without U.S. military help.
"What has happened has weakened the government and shown the weakness of the state. Now the capability of the state to control Iraq is open to question," said Izzat al-Shahbander, a moderate Shi’ite politician from the Iraqi National List party.
Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in England, said Maliki had staked his political credibility on the show of force in Basra and lost.
"Maliki’s credibility is shot at this point. He really thought his security forces could really do this. But he’s failed," he said.
SADR LOOKS STRONGER
While Maliki has sought to portray the operation as an effort to reassert his government’s control over Basra and crack down only on "criminals", not political parties, many analysts believe it is politically motivated.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest Shi’ite party in government and an ally of Maliki’s Dawa party, is battling for control of Basra in an often violent turf war that pits it against Sadrists and the smaller Fadhila party, which controls the local oil industry.
Sadrists accuse Maliki and the Supreme Council of trying to crush them ahead of the October provincial elections in which they are expected to make big gains at the expense of the Council, which controls many local authorities in the south.
"This is him (Maliki) basically preparing for an election. They need to disarm Sadr. The strongest militia in the city will control the vote," said Alani.
But Sadr aides say the Mehdi Army will not give up their weapons, raising the prospect of another confrontation, as the Iraqi military says it will press on with the Basra operation.
Sadr, ironically, may emerge stronger from the affair.
"Clearly Sadr has gained a victory. This was not a fight he picked and his forces looked strong. He has consolidated his position," said Stansfield.
The cleric, who is widely believed to be in Iran furthering his religious studies, now looks like the victim of political manoeuvring by Shi’ite parties in government.
"The Sadrists may have been strengthened in many people’s minds. Many have seen the onslaught as unfair," said Reidar Visser, an expert on southern Iraq who edits the Web site www.historiae.org.
Iraqis will now be watching to see what happens next, but after enduring a bitter Sunni Arab insurgency and then a wave of sectarian violence between Shi’ites and Sunnis, they have become accustomed to expecting the worst.
"It’s true there are no clashes, gunmen or explosions," said Jabbar Sabhan, a civil servant in Basra, "but the situation is still dangerous. I don’t trust the words of politicians."
(Reporting by Randy Fabi, Waleed Ibrahim and Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)