Gen. David Petraeus needs to be blunt in his coming report on Iraq and say whether last week's battle for Basra has made it easier for the US to start pulling out. The six-day conflict in Iraq's second largest city could be a turning point leading to a stronger central government. If not, the US has difficult choices ahead.
The intense combat left hundreds dead. But it also was not the usual warfare between Iraq's rival Islamic camps of Sunni and Shiite. It was launched by a Shiite-dominated government out to break the local control of militias led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
And it was a test for both the strength of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the cohesiveness and ability of the young Iraqi military, which fought with little US support.
The fact that Shiite-run Iran had to mediate a halt to hostilities shows how critical this inter-Shiite battle is. If Iraq's own majority Shiites and their various religious parties cannot hold things together in peace, Iraq surely won't be able to. But national unity is what is desired by most Iraqis – and by both Iran and the US.
The battle of Basra, and its spillover into Baghdad fighting, could end up having a similar effect on Iraq as Shay's Rebellion did on early America in its postindependence, preconstitutional years. It can serve as a wake-up call for strong government and an end to militias capable of insurrection. In 1786, an antitax revolt of Massachusetts farmers and tradesmen led to attacks on federal arsenals and showed the weakness of the national government under the Articles of Confederation. "We are fast verging toward anarchy and confusion," wrote an alarmed George Washington, who came out of retirement to help create the Constitution and become president.
Just why the Basra battle began and how it ended should contain lessons for Iraq. Tellingly, it started six months after most British forces gave up control of the port city and a few weeks after a historic visit to Iraq by Iran's president. That trip by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signaled Iran's interest in a stable, united Iraq – with some influence over its former enemy. And it may have emboldened Prime Minister Maliki to order the attack on Mr. Sadr's forces, many of whom had resorted to banditry and smuggling.
But also, with provincial elections tentatively scheduled for October, the battle may reflect a contest among Iraq's Shiite parties. If so, Iraq is still in that democratic half-way house where bullets are used to influence ballots.
The prime minister and Iraqi Army failed in their goal to force Sadr's militias to surrender. But under the new cease-fire, Sadr told his forces "to cooperate with the government to achieve security." This muddled end, and especially the failure of Iraq's military, does not bode well for the long-term struggle for Iraqi nationalism against Shiite sectarianism. At best, the battle was a stalemate, but one that should also force Iran, the US, and Iraq's political parties to seek the necessary compromises that can better unify Iraqis.
President Bush said last week that the battle was a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq." It probably was. Now he and others must define the future for a less-than-free Iraq, and how much longer US forces must stay.