Is McCain a Pollyana on the Basra Cease Fire?

Speaking to the VFW today in Kansas City, Mo., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will attack Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

"The American people deserve the truth from their leaders," McCain will say, according to his prepared remarks. "They deserve a candid assessment of the progress we have managed to make in the last year in preventing the worst from happening in Iraq, of the very serious difficulties that remain, and of the grave consequences of a hasty, reckless, and irresponsible withdrawal.  If we are honest about the opportunities and the risks, I believe they will have the patience to allow us the time necessary to obtain our objectives."

McCain will also say, "that honesty is my responsibility, and it is also the responsibility of Senators Obama and Clinton, as well as Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress.  Doing the right thing in the heat of a political campaign is not always the easiest thing.  But when 4000 Americans have given their lives so that America does not suffer the worst consequences of our failure in Iraq, it is a necessary thing.  In such a grave matter, we must put the nation’s interests before our own ambitions."

But while McCain speaks of candor and honesty, there are questions about comments he made to Fox News Sunday about the cease fire in Basra.

McCain interpreted the events as positive for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and negative for Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, when there are reports that seriously undermine that notion.

"It was al-Sadr that declared the ceasefire, not Maliki," McCain said. "With respect, I don’t think Sadr would have declared the ceasefire if he thought he was winning. Most times in history, military engagements, the winning side doesn’t declare the ceasefire."

The context of this is important. First of all, at the end of March al-Maliki declared  Iraqi forces would battle the Sadr militia in Basra "to the end" as "a message to all gangs that the state is in charge of the country".

"We entered this battle with determination and we will continue to the end," Maliki said. "No retreat. No talks. No negotiations."

But McClatchy newspapers reports that despite that rhetoric, al Maliki sent two representatives to Qom, Iran, to seek help to obtain a cease fire with Sadr.

Ali al Adeeb of Maliki's Dawa party, and Hadi al Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, met with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds brigades of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps solicit Suleimani's help to get Sadr to agree to a cease fire.

Within 24 hours, the cease fire was declared by Sadr.

(It should be noted that Suleimani is on a U.S. government terrorist watch list.)

"The statement issued today by (Sadr) is a result of the meetings," Jalal al-Din al Saghir, a leading member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, told McClatchy. "The government didn't have any disagreement with the Sadrists when it went to the city of Basra. The Sadrist movement is the one that chose to face the government."

"We asked Iranian officials to help us persuade him that we were not cracking down on the Sadr group," added an Iraqi official.

And others in Baghdad -- such as TIME's Charles Crain -- do not share McCain's rosy interpretation of events.

Crain writes that the "very fact of the cease-fire flies in the face of Maliki's proclamation that there would be no negotiations. It is Maliki, and not Sadr, who now appears militarily weak and unable to control elements of his own political coalition."

He adds that the "Iraqi military's offensive in Basra was supposed to demonstrate the power of the central government in Baghdad. Instead it has proven the continuing relevance of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr." Sadr's ability to call for the cease fire and have it happen so quickly, Crain says, "was an ominous answer to a question posed for months by U.S. military observes: Is Sadr still the leader of a unified movement and military force? The answer appears to be yes."

The question is whether McCain too often displays a tendency towards Pollyana-ish views of the situation in Iraq, post-surge. What do you think?

- jpt

UPDATE: The McCain campaign strenuously objects to my use of "Pollyana" and notes that McCain offered several notes of disapproval in that same interview, saying the results of the battle of Basra "were mixed.  Obviously, there were problems.  And Maliki, in my view, should have waited until we had concluded the battle of Mosul which is going on as we speak."

McCain also said, "I didn't particularly like the outcome of this thing, but I am convinced that we now have a government that is governing with some effect and a military that is functioning very effectively."

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