Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.Juan Cole disagrees:
My reading is that the US faced a dilemma in Iraq. It needed to have new provincial elections in an attempt to mollify the Sunni Arabs, especially in Sunni-majority provinces like Diyala, which has nevertheless been ruled by the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. But if they have provincial elections, their chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council, might well lose southern provinces to the Sadr Movement. In turn, the Sadrists are demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, whereas ISCI wants US troops to remain. So the setting of October, 2008, as the date for provincial elections provoked this crisis. I think Cheney probably told ISCI and Prime Minister al-Maliki that the way to fix this problem and forestall the Sadrists oming to power in Iraq, was to destroy the Mahdi Army, the Sadrists' paramilitary. Without that coercive power, the Sadrists might not remain so important, is probably their thinking. I believe them to be wrong, and suspect that if the elections are fair, the Sadrists will sweep to power and may even get a sympathy vote. It is admittedly a big 'if.'I think this is about right.
Tim F at Balloon Juice has some great insight:
A priori I would have guessed that Maliki’s troops are the little dog in a fight against Sadr’s militias on Sadrist turf, and reports seem to be bearing that out. When does a little dog pick a fight he can’t win? I’m not exactly Cesar Milan, but saturday morning cartoons tell me that little dogs usually pick fights when a big dog friend isn’t too far off.
I don’t think that Maliki ever planned to fight Sadr on his own. Through Petraeus we’ve been doing everything in our power to smooth relations with Sadr, but that won’t do for Maliki if Sadr creams him in the upcoming elections. Doing nothing isn’t an option, fighting Sadr directly isn’t an option, so his best and maybe only chance is to commit the big dog and hope the big dog wins.
The problem is that the big dog only has so much bite left in him. The dirty secret of Iraq planning is that the commitment was unsustainable even before Petraeus. Now, after the “Surge,” the reckoning will only come that much sooner. Our own strategy hinged on wrapping up the whole bundle by now – reconciliation, stability, a self-sufficient central government – because there is simply no way for us to sustain a real fight after the “surge” winds down.