By Hiwa Osman
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s recent crackdown on militias in Basra has opened a fresh chapter in Iraqi politics, given the army new impetus, and restored a degree of public confidence in the state’s ability to enforce the rule of law.
But building on this success will depends greatly on his next move, an operation to clear the northern city of Mosul of al-Qaeda and Baathist militants.
When the operation codenamed "Charge of the Knights" was launched in Basra around the beginning of April, many saw it as a make-or-break moment for the prime minister and for the Iraqi army.
Maliki’s declaration that he would pursue the "outlaws" to the end won him new allies and rallied the country’s political leaders behind him.
His Sunni opponents, in particular, hailed the assault on the lawless paramilitary groups that effectively controlled Basra as a bold step in the right direction.
The major Sunni political bloc, the Accord Front, had withdrawn from the cabinet, but has signalled its desire to return to government as a result of the Basra operation.
As Accord Front leader Adnan al-Dulaimi made clear, one of the bloc’s demands was to "hunt down and disband the militias and curb the outlaws".
Sunni leaders have since indicated that the Maliki government has taken sufficient action on addressing their concerns to allow them to end their boycott.
Another gain for the prime minister was the rapprochement he achieved with Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, one of the most prominent and powerful Sunni figures engaged in the political process. The often strained relationship between the two men was one of the factors that led to the Sunni boycott of the cabinet.
Hashimi has publicly backed the Basra assault, and now sits together with the prime minister in the crisis operations room that is considering how to handle the next issue on Maliki’s agenda – Mosul.
Maliki has also won broader backing, reflected in a declaration issued by the Political Council for National Security, a 19-member body that brings together the three-member presidency including the Iraqi president himself, the prime minister and deputy premiers, the speaker of parliament and his deputies, the heads of the various blocs in the legislature, the president of the Kurdistan region and the head of the Iraqi judiciary.
The document, which outlines the principles by which Iraq’s political system should operate, is broadly supportive of Maliki.
Significantly, the only reservations were expressed by the Sadrists, the supporters of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose armed faction, the Mahdi Army, was one of the groups targeted in Basra.
From a military perspective, analysts and local army commanders agree that the Basra operation was poorly prepared.
Nevertheless, as the first real test of the new Iraqi army, it was overall a resounding success.
By and large, the troops obeyed orders to fight militiamen even when they shared the same Shia affiliation.
There were some deserters, reluctant to fight against fellow-Shia and Sadrists. Yet at 1,500 out of the 30,000 men deployed for the operation, the incidence of desertion was viewed as insignificant and no cause for alarm.
Defence sources in Baghdad even welcomed the fact. As one source close to the defence ministry put it, "It was a good way to weed out the bad elements and the unprofessional soldiers."
At the same time, the desertions highlighted the military’s need for more training, as well for a proper vetting system during the recruitment process.
All in all, though, the operation represented an important step towards establishing a truly national, professional army.
The government was given a further boost when Sadr issued a statement urging the government to accept the deserters to return to their army duties.
More recently, Sadr’s appeal for calm and the avoidance of bloodshed has generally been interpreted as an admission of failure, and as a sign that Maliki’s drive to control Basra has been at least partly successful.
Although the government now controls large areas of the city including the port areas, there are still parts of Basra that remain beyond its reach, and many of the militia leaders are still at large.
After Basra, the prime minister has ordered similar operations against Shia militias in other parts of Iraq, in the face of repeated calls – largely prompted by Iran – for an end to the campaign.
If he wants to maintain the current level of support he is getting from across the political spectrum, Maliki will have to show continued resolve to go after the militias wherever they are. That will be no easy task, since it will be unpopular among the prime minister’s own Shia constituency.
Maliki’s leadership qualities both as prime minister and commander-in-chief of the armed force are being put to the test.
He was elevated to power in 2006 as the result of a political deal between the diverse political blocs that had won seats in parliament. Over the past two years, however, many questions have been raised about his capacity to lead a government of national unity and to act as a truly non-sectarian prime minister.
To an extent, the Basra operation has quelled those doubts.
By the time he embarks on a military operation to regain control over Mosul, he will need to have removed the last traces of doubt that he is a prime minister for all Iraqis, and that Shia and Sunni "outlaws" are to be dealt with in exactly the same manner.
By the same token, the current level of Sunni support will need to be sustained when it comes to the Mosul operation, especially as it is expected to be a lot more difficult than Basra was.
Winning the backing of leading Sunni politicians to take on wayward Shia militias is one thing; asking them to approve military action in a city regarded as a hotbed of Sunni Islamists and Arab nationalists is quite another.
In Mosul, the enemy is an amalgam of al-Qaeda and diehard Baathists. These forces are a lot less visible, and a good deal more effective, than the Mahdi Army.
Another problem is that unlike the western Sunni provinces, Mosul has not seen the emergence of strong "awakening councils" – the local groups which have taken up arms against al-Qaeda.
In short, much of what was achieved in Basra is going to be sorely tested in the Mosul operation.
Basra was about demonstrating that Iraq has one army and one commander-in-chief. Mosul will test whether Sunni political groups really subscribe to this notion.
Hiwa Osman is an adviser to IWPR’s Iraq programme. Before joining IWPR earlier in 2008, he served for over two years as Media Adviser to President Jalal Talabani.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.