Update - Part II here.
Iraqi security forces battle the Mahdi Army - Bill Roggio, Long War Journal
The current Iraqi offensive has been in the works for some time. The Iraqi Army and police have been massing forces in the South since August 2007, when the Basrah Operational Command was established to coordinate efforts in the region. As of December the Iraqi Army deployed four brigades and an Iraqi Special Operations Forces battalion in Basrah province. The Iraqi National Police deployed two additional battalions to the province.
The clashes with the Mahdi Army come just weeks after Muqtada al Sadr admitted failure in Iraq. "So far I did not succeed either to liberate Iraq or make it an Islamic society — whether because of my own inability or the inability of society, only God knows," Sadr wrote to his followers...
How Far Against Sadr? - The Belmont Club
The offensive is almost entirely an all-Iraqi show. British forces, though still in Basra are uninvolved. The International Herald Tribune says "U.S. forces also appeared to play little role in the clashes in Baghdad." Maliki himself toured Basra a few days ago. A Time article by Bobby Ghost speculates on whether Maliki will finish off Sadr as a political force, unlike Iyad Allawi, who crushed Sadr with US help in 2004 only to let him off the hook after intervention by Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
But more than Sistani's intervention saved Sadr's position on that occasion. The US was preoccupied in combating what it felt was the primary threat: al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency. Sadr's political clout after the elections also prevented Maliki from acting against him. But things have changed...
More on Basra (Updated) - Abu Muqawama
... One answer is that the Brits adopted a "peacekeeping" mindset in Basra and never really engaged in a broader COIN or CT effort. That meant that all the myriad Shia groups were able to pursue their (relatively) non-violent political agenda and consolidate control over the political levers of city. There's a chance (albeit not a big one) that our COIN efforts in Anbar, Baghdad, and elsewhere have undercut the political bases of these groups and made a Basra-style breakdown less likely. Time will tell.
Basra Fighting Triggers Baghdad Clashes - Noah Shachtman, Danger Room
It's not all that surprising that U.S. and Iraqi forces moved against Shi'ite militias in Basra today: the British essentially abandoned the city months ago; even now, in the middle of these clashes, "there are no British troops on the ground," reports SkyNews. What's disconcerting is that this fighting in southern Iraq appears to have triggered clashes in Baghdad, as well...
Basra: Shi'ite Militias Clash (Updated) - Noah Shachtman, Danger Room
The fight in Basra is being billed as the Iraqi government versus the militias of Shi'ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. But it's just as much a fight between rival Shi'ite factions...
Brits Bail, Basra Burns (Updated) - David Axe, Danger Room
And where's the British Army during all this? Hunkered at the airport outside Basra, where in December Major General Graham Binns signed documents officially handing over security in the region to Iraqi forces. I was there for the ceremony (videos here and here), and in the aftermath I wrote that the British had effectively surrendered any ability to intervene in Basra. With no forward bases, no intelligence apparatus in the city of Basra, less nimble equipment and no political will to suffer a single additional casualty in Iraq, the roughly 3,000 Brits remaining in the country can do little but wait out the current fighting.
Which means any Western intervention in Basra -- some reports are calling it a planned "surge" for the south -- will have to be mostly manned by U.S. forces. Specifically, U.S. Marines, according to one AFP report...
Wages of Sin, We Keep Paying - Spencer Ackerman, Too Hot for TNR
Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki is giving powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's forces three days to surrender in Basra, as clashes between Maliki's security forces and Sadr's Mahdi Army -- in which the U.S. intervenes on Maliki's side -- escalate. But with the U.S. happy about the now-abrogated Sadrist ceasefire, why is the U.S. military getting involved?
Chaos While We're There, Chaos After We Leave? - Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent
... Withdrawing without any political strategy, as the British did from Basra, leads to a vacuum like the one we're seeing now. Sadr rushes in. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rushes in. The Fadhila party maneuvers between the two. Forces ostensibly loyal to the government, pinioned between all sides, find ways to accommodate the existing power on the streets. In other words: chaos.
So to avoid chaos -- and I recognize this is banal and generic -- you can't just pull up stakes...
From SNAFU to FUBAR in Basra - Phil Carter, Intel Dump
.... It's difficult to see how this ends well. This is some of the nastiest intra-sectarian fighting we've seen in Iraq. Second, it looks pretty clear that Maliki is using the Iraqi security forces to consolidate his own power and eliminate his rivals. Third, I can only imagine the trepidation being felt by Sunni leaders who are watching this and wondering whether they're next on Maliki's hit list. For now, the heavy fighting remains limited to Basra, although skirmishes have erupted throughout the country. If this clash in Basra lasts longer than a week, that's going to be really bad for the Maliki government. If the heavy fighting spreads, that's going to be even worse.
Another Theory for the Pile - Marc Lynch, Abu Aardvark
... Me, I wish that Maliki and Bush had paid more attention to Joost Hilterman's prescient analysis when thinking through how to go about extending Iraqi state sovereignty into the south - a good thing! - without violent confrontations with Sadr and without giving the strong appearance of employing the Iraqi Army on behalf of one player in an intra-communal political battle. I'm still trying to figure out whether there are really talks going on behind the scenes to end this or whether Maliki really does plan to push on as he says, and whether there's any truth at all to the stories in the Arab press of widescale defections among government troops (I tend to doubt it, given the sources where thus far these stories have been running).... in between sneezing, coughing, and blowing my nose, that is.
The Enigmatic Second Battle of Basra - Reidar Visser, Histories of Political Imagining
... Perhaps most importantly, there is a discrepancy between the description of Basra as a city ruled by militias (in the plural) -- which is doubtless correct -- and the battlefield facts of the ongoing operations which seem to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to do something to also stem the influence of the other militias loyal to the local competitors of the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), as well as the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (which have dominated the oil protection services for a long time). But so far, only Sadrists have complained about attacks by government forces.
The Battle in Basra - Herschel Smith, The Captain's Journal
... The Captain's Journal still doesn't like Maliki. This operation should have been conducted years ago, and one troubling aspect of Maliki's involvement came to light in an ultimatum he issued to the fighters in Basra. "Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday gave gunmen in the southern oil port of Basra a three-day deadline to surrender their weapons and renounce violence ..."
Kazimi has gotten it right. The enemy is comprised of Iranian-sponsored thugs and killers, corrupt Sadrists, and criminals who are after oil money (not to mention the Islamist gangs who have beheaded hundreds of women over the last year). Basra is currently run by a witch's brew of the worst elements on earth. To be fighting them is a good thing. Far from Iraq slipping into chaos, it was always the case that until the Shi'a fighters were taken out like the Sunni insurgents were, there would be no peace in Iraq...