And with the failure of this test they have given another clear sign that the Surge has also failed. The assault on Basra by the Iraqi Army has not worked.
The best available Iraqi division (the 14th) was stopped cold and then counter attacked by a part time, untrained force.
That was only the first indication of failure; later events have made the scope of the failure more clear. The government forces have been displaced from key positions over much of the South. The Mahdi Army and forces aligned with it have been able to take control of portions of many major towns and religious centers. The security forces in a number of cities are being reported to have surrendered to, or joined with, the militias. To top it all off, the US and UK forces have provided air power to the Iraqi forces (understandable since Iraqis don't yet have a viable air wing even after five years). What is less understandable is the fact that the US and UK had to provide specialized ground forces and field artillery support. The Mahdi Army was able to beat the Iraqi army with al-Sadr publicly encouraging his people to honor the cease fire, making me wonder what could happen if he did call for an uprising.
The addition of US and UK forces into the fight has led Muqtada al-Sadr to become more serious about ending the current conflict. He has encouraged his followers to disavow anyone who carries weapons and targets government institutions, charities and political party offices while continuing calls for a negotiated settlement. He is also demanding the release of those captured and amnesty for his supporters. The involvement of our forces makes it imposable for any militia to win on the battle field but it also makes it clear the the Iraqi army has lost and it is al-Sadr's forces that beat them.
Now that the US has stepped in, al-Sadr knows he cannot win outright, so he is working for a return to the status quo. He knows his message has been sent and received. While making a pronouncement of restraint and national brotherhood, he was able to affirm the right to self defense for his followers and still stop the Iraqi Army. This time not only did al-Sadr's followers stop the Iraqi Army, they were able to push them back. It has become all too clear that the Iraqi Armed forces are unable to do the most basic of tasks without US and UK support and are still easy targets for the militias.
What is more distressing is that the motivation for this military adventure is now coming clear. This is a political civil war within a religious civil war. The Shia Factions are fighting for political control in the South with an eye on the elections this Fall. The current party in charge wants to make sure they remain in power, and to do this they want to weaken al-Sadr in the south. This conflict is over the political control of the provinces and unfortunately the US has taken sides. This explains why the Mahdi Army was a target, but Nuri al-Maliki's friends, the Badar Brigade (another independent force), has been left alone and in fact has been involved in some of the attacks on the Mahdi Army.
Anyone that thinks the Surge has worked clearly doesn't understand what moving an additional 30,000 US combat troops into this area was meant to do. Our goal was to create space for political reconciliation. There was never any doubt that the US Army could impose its will over any region of Iraq where it had sufficient forces.
The question is, did the Iraqi government have the ability to work together to build a new nation? The answer to this question and the degree of the success of the Surge should now be clear to everyone.