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The Battle of Basra

Lessons from this six-day conflict may decide if Iraq is to have a strong government.

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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.

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