TSR: "...what's happening is a consolidation of Iranian influence."
Michael is still in London, and talks to Wolf about the Basra violence and how it portends what could happen if US forces withdraw from Iraq. Basically it boils down to this: the Iranian-influenced Iraqi government is attacking Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi militia because he (Muqtada) is not in lockstep with Iran.
(If we resolved things here in the US the same way, Hillary's people would be going after Obama's people with assault weapons, not media attacks. Which I guess would make McCain the Sunni; waiting on the sidelines while the Dems destroy each other.)
Wolf also talks to Ed Henry, who gives a rundown of the current situation and then the president's version of it.
WOLF BLITZER: The Iraqi city of Basra in the south is caught right now in a violent power struggle. A potentially pivotal moment for the Iraqi mission and for U.S. troops who are stationed there. On this fourth day of fierce clashes, the Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is vowing to fight until the end -- his words -- against the Shiite militias loyal to the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Tens of thousands of al-Sadr's followers are protesting recent raids and detentions, calling al-Maliki a new dictator. In Baghdad militants fired mortars and rockets at Iraqi security forces, U.S. troops and civilians.
A U.S. government official was killed in the U.S. protected international zone, the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad and now U.S. embassy workers in Iraq are being told to stay inside secure buildings. All of this as President Bush gave a wide-ranging speech about the situation in Iraq.
CNN's Michael Ware spent years in Iraq, is standing by in London. We're going to talk with him in a moment.
But let's get the latest from Ed Henry, who has been watching the president's speech earlier in the day.
The president did challenge the Iraqi government to step up. Update our viewers on his message.
ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president did talk about this violence in Basra. He tried to cast it as a positive development in the long run because it shows the Iraqi government stepping up. But that's far from reality right now.
HENRY (voice-over): Another day of chaos in Basra. Shia militiamen sabotaging an oil pipeline as the Iraqi military's attempt to regain control of the southern port city has stalled. Meanwhile at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, President Bush continued to tout progress from the surge, trying to make the case the violence in Basra is actually building on that success.
BUSH: Prime Minister Maliki's bold decision, and it was a bold decision, to go after the illegal groups in Basra shows his leadership. It also shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge.
HENRY: But the president also seemed to be prepping the American people for a spike in violence as the Mehdi army of Muqtada al Sadr pushes back against the Iraqi forces.
BUSH: This operation is going to take some time to complete. The enemy will try to fill the TV screens with violence. But the ultimate result will be this: terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society.
HENRY: Another possible result, the new violence could spark an unraveling of the cease fire with the Mehdi army that had stabilized the situation on the ground. Nevertheless, the president focused on economic and political gains made by the Iraqis. Even using a sports anecdote he heard from General Ray Odierno, the former number two commander in Iraq who just returned home.
BUSH: He flew over Baghdad 15 months ago and he couldn't see a single soccer game. On his final flight last month he counted more than 180. It is a sign that the surge is working and civil society is beginning to grow. It is a sign normalcy is returning back to Iraq.
(END OF VIDEOTAPE)
HENRY: Now, just as interesting is what the president is not saying. He's not talking about bringing home a large number of U.S. troops later in the year, and officials here are not knocking down speculation that Mr. Bush might leave office without another major U.S. troop cut on the ground in Iraq.
Obviously if this violence on the ground continues to grow, it's going to be that much harder for the U.S. to pull out more troops. As Mr. Bush has said over and over, he does not want to lose the progress the U.S. has already made -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
Ed Henry, he's over at the White House.
Let's go to Michael Ware. He's joining us from London.
Michael, you've spent years watching the situation in Iraq unfold. On this, the day the president was touting progress, it looks like the situation is deteriorating, especially in Basra, in the south, in Sadr City, and the problems for Nouri al-Maliki's government not coming from Iraqi Sunni insurgents but from fellow Shiites, Muqtada al-Sadr's militias. What is going on?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what's going on is the future of Iraq without U.S. forces. Welcome to it. You think Lebanon in the '80s was bad? Many people say that the future of Iraq with a timetable for withdrawal will be exactly what you're seeing now. We're seeing Iranian-backed Shia faction fighting Iranian-backed Shia faction.
Now I don't care who in the administration wants to tout this as a positive step. The end result of this, whether you dress it up as a law and order crusade, or whether you dress it up as a successful military operation led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who does not share Washington's agenda, the end effect of all of this is that what's happening is a consolidation of Iranian influence.
BLITZER: So what you're suggesting is doesn't make any difference if the U.S. troops leave now or if they leave a year from now or five years from now, the end result is going to be chaos and civil strife in Iraq?
WARE: Well, five years from now maybe Iran will have consolidated its gains on power and it won't have to induce crisis. But put it this way, Wolf, America is still in South Korea.
Now if you think American troops can withdraw next year, then someone is being delusional. The only thing that is keeping these groups apart, the only thing that's keeping the Sunni/Shia from sectarian warfare, the only thing that can possibly contain this Shia-on-Shia violence, all of which is backed by Iran, is the presence of American forces.
They provide what limited buffer they can do. Now, the Brits in the south of Iraq who technically once owned Basra have now retreated to the air base in that city. They're unable to project combat power or influence. So you're seeing the natural course of events.
BLITZER: Is there any chance, do you believe that Nouri al-Maliki's forces can crush Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia?
WARE: Well that's kind of a moot point in many ways. Let's look at it this way: Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr still has enormous influence on the street. Why? Because he's an Iraqi nationalist.
His main selling point is the fact that, "under Saddam I didn't leave. Unlike all these Iraqis who fled to Tehran. My father died, my uncle died..." He has great sway on the street. Now once upon a time he had great sway with the paramilitary force. But that's been eroded by the Iranians. The best of his commanders, the most hard-lined, have been cleaved away, retrained, rearmed, refunded and joined with Lebanese Hezbollah and sent back in the field to kill Americans. The Muqtada al-Sadr of today is not the Muqtada al-Sadr of 2004. And Nouri al-Maliki does not see him as a partner.
Now, what America has been doing by default and by the admission of American commanders is essentially consolidating the influence of Iran. Why? Because intelligence against many of these forces in Basra and Baghdad and elsewhere, against the Mehdi army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr is generated by who? The Iraqi government. The Iraqi government is dominated by factions that are heavily influenced by Iran. So they're eroding the power of Muqtada to the benefit of pro-Iranian factions.
BLITZER: All right.
WARE: So that's what we're seeing, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's not a very pretty picture, indeed. Michael, thanks very much.
WARE: Not at all.
BLITZER: Michael Ware will be in Washington in the coming days, we'll talk with him here.