Iraq: Basra and Beyond

Apr 8, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

April 8, 2008
Number 04/08 #03

This Update features two articles on the aftermath of the Iraqi army’s recent battles with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite extremist Mahdi Army, led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

However, first up is a preview, written by US Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, of the issues likely to be raised as the US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, testifies before Congress overnight. They point out the vast changes in the Iraq situation since Petraeus last testified in September, and that contrary to frequent claims, this transformation has been political as well as military. They argue that those who continue to harp on the costs of US involvement in Iraq also need to look to the cost of pulling out prematurely against the advice of the military. For their full argument, CLICK HERE. Another preview of what Petraeus is likely to say, along with some comments on the Basra outcome, is from former military intelligence officer turned columnist Ralph Peters. For more on the progress on most of the political benchmarks for Iraq set by the US Congress, see military historian Frederick Kagan’s summary here.

Next up, Kagan, along with his wife Kimberly, herself a noted strategic studies academic, looks at what we know and don’t know about events in Basra, and argues that, contrary to most portrayals, the fighting between Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army was a very positive sign, – not least because it was the Iraqi government finally confronting Shi’ite militias, with little external help, in a way that Westerners have often urged. The Kagans also point out that, though the fighting broke out prematurely and without adequate preparation, the Iraqi forces were able to quickly send in reinforcements in large numbers, and the outcome was overwhelmingly positive in terms of the marginalisation of al-Sadr, the weakening of his forces, and Iraqi success in gaining control of the port of Basra. For their full description of what we know about Basra, CLICK HERE. Some critiques of media coverage in some outlets which seemed determined to see the operation as a failure in the face of anything short of instantaneous, overwhelming victory, see Canadian columnist David Frum, as well as former embedded Iraq reporters Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Bill Roggio.

Finally, this Update includes an Associated Press report on the intense political pressure the forces of al-Sadr are now under in Iraq, with all parties now insisting that political parties must disband their militias to participate in elections, a move openly directed against al-Sadr’s group. The piece makes it clear his political supporters now appear completely isolated, and will come under increasing pressure to agree to disband the military in coming weeks. For this under-reported story, CLICK HERE.

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Iraq and Its Costs


Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2008

When Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress tomorrow, he will step into an American political landscape dramatically different from the one he faced when he last spoke on Capitol Hill seven months ago.

This time Gen. Petraeus returns to Washington having led one of the most remarkably successful military operations in American history. His antiwar critics, meanwhile, face a crisis of credibility – having confidently predicted the failure of the surge, and been proven decidedly wrong.

As late as last September, advocates of retreat insisted that the surge would fail to bring about any meaningful reduction in violence in Iraq. MoveOn.org accused Gen. Petraeus of “cooking the books,” while others claimed that his testimony, offering evidence of early progress, required “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Gen. Petraeus will be the first to acknowledge that the gains in Iraq have come at a heavy price in blood and treasure. We mourn the loss and pain of the civilians and service members who have been killed and wounded in Iraq, but adamantly believe these losses have served a noble cause.

No one can deny the dramatic improvements in security in Iraq achieved by Gen. Petraeus, the brave troops under his command, and the Iraqi Security Forces. From June 2007 through February 2008, deaths from ethno-sectarian violence in Baghdad have fallen approximately 90%. American casualties have also fallen sharply, down by 70%.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has been swept from its former strongholds in Anbar province and Baghdad. The liberation of these areas was made possible by the surge, which empowered Iraqi Muslims to reject the Islamist extremists who had previously terrorized them into submission. Any time Muslims take up arms against Osama bin Laden, his agents and sympathizers, the world is a safer place.

In the past seven months, the other main argument offered by critics of the Petraeus strategy has also begun to collapse: namely, the alleged lack of Iraqi political progress.

Antiwar forces last September latched onto the Iraqi government’s failure to pass “benchmark” legislation, relentlessly hammering Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as hopelessly sectarian and unwilling to confront Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Here as well, however, the critics in Washington have been proven wrong.

In recent months, the Iraqi government, encouraged by our Ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has passed benchmark legislation on such politically difficult issues as de-Baathification, amnesty, the budget and provincial elections. After boycotting the last round of elections, Sunnis now stand ready to vote by the millions in the provincial elections this autumn. The Iraqi economy is growing at a brisk 7% and inflation is down dramatically.

And, in launching the recent offensive in Basra, Mr. Maliki has demonstrated that he has the political will to take on the Shiite militias and criminal gangs, which he recently condemned as “worse than al Qaeda.”

Of course, while the gains we have achieved in Iraq are meaningful and undeniable, so are the challenges ahead. Iraqi Security Forces have grown in number and shown significant improvement, but the Basra operation showed they still have a way to go. Al Qaeda has been badly weakened by the surge, but it still retains a significant foothold in the northern city of Mosul, where Iraqi and coalition forces are involved in a campaign to destroy it.

Most importantly, Iran also continues to wage a vicious and escalating proxy war against the Iraqi government and the U.S. military. The Iranians have American blood on their hands. They are responsible, through the extremist agents they have trained and equipped, for the deaths of hundreds of our men and women in uniform. Increasingly, our fight in Iraq cannot be separated from our larger struggle to prevent the emergence of an Iranian-dominated Middle East.

These continuing threats from Iran and al Qaeda underscore why we believe that decisions about the next steps in Iraq should be determined by the recommendations of Gen. Petraeus, based on conditions on the ground.

It is also why it is imperative to be cautious about the speed and scope of any troop withdrawals in the months ahead, rather than imposing a political timeline for troop withdrawal against the recommendation of our military.

Unable to make the case that the surge has failed, antiwar forces have adopted a new set of talking points, emphasizing the “costs” of our involvement in Iraq, hoping to exploit Americans’ current economic anxieties.

Today’s antiwar politicians have effectively turned John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on its head, urging Americans to refuse to pay any price, or bear any burden, to assure the survival of liberty. This is wrong. The fact is that America’s prosperity at home and security abroad are bound together. We will not fare well in a world in which al Qaeda and Iran can claim that they have defeated us in Iraq and are ascendant.

There is no question the war in Iraq – like the Cold War, World War II and every other conflict we have fought in our history – costs money. But as great as the costs of this struggle have been, so too are the dividends to our national security from a successful outcome, with a functioning, representative Iraqi government and a stabilized Middle East. The costs of abandoning Iraq to our enemies, conversely, would be enormous, not only in dollars, but in human lives and in the security and freedom of our nation.

Indeed, had we followed the path proposed by antiwar groups and retreated in defeat, the war would have been lost, emboldening and empowering violent jihadists for generations to come.

The success we are now achieving also has consequences far beyond Iraq’s borders in the larger, global struggle against Islamist extremism. Thanks to the surge, Iraq today is looking increasingly like Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare: an Arab country, in the heart of the Middle East, in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims – both Sunni and Shiite – are rising up and fighting, shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers, against al Qaeda and its hateful ideology.

It is unfortunate that so many opponents of the surge still refuse to acknowledge the gains we have achieved in Iraq. When Gen. Petraeus testifies this week, however, the American people will have a clear choice as we weigh the future of our fight there: between the general who is leading us to victory, and the critics who spent the past year predicting defeat.

Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut. Mr. Graham is a Republican senator from South Carolina.

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What Happened in Basra

The Maliki-Sadr showdown.

by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan

Weekly Standard, 04/14/2008, Volume 013, Issue 29

On March 24, 2008, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) under Lieutenant General Mohan al-Fireji launched a series of attacks against illegal Shia militias and criminal elements in the city of Basra.

The attack appears to have resulted from an impulsive order by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had gone down to Basra to see the preparations for a more deliberate operation then being planned. The militias, which included elements of the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) nominally under the control of Moktada al-Sadr as well as the Special Groups–secret cells organized by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–were well dug-in and fought back.

Iraqi forces in Basra, supported by American advisers and air support, pressed the attack and sent reinforcements. Special Groups and elements of JAM attacked the ISF throughout Shia Iraq in what appears to have been an attempt to ignite widespread fighting in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, Kut, Nasiriya, and Diwaniya. Iraqi forces repulsed these attacks with very little assistance in the area between Baghdad and Basra, and coalition forces worked closely with the ISF to contain the violence in Baghdad.

On March 30, Sadr ordered his fighters to stand down, following a meeting between Iraqi officials and the commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani. Sadr’s order, accompanied by a set of demands–which Maliki has denied agreeing to–led to a significant reduction in the resistance of JAM members, but has not halted ISF operations in Baghdad and Basra.

These are the facts of the case established so far. There has been much speculation about what happened in Basra itself: about possible deals between Maliki and Sadr, about the benefits Sadr or Maliki might have received from this encounter, and about Maliki’s motivations. Because British forces, nominally responsible for the area in which Basra is located, have abandoned the city, there were few coalition forces present and very few Westerners at all. Most of the details of the operation publicized in the American press come from Iraqi stringers, the usual anonymous Iraqi officials, and, it seems, some Sadrist media outlets. In all previous operations where U.S. forces were present, we have learned that such information is of limited value. We simply do not yet know how well the ISF acquitted itself in the actual fighting, what if any areas were cleared, who was resisting, and so on.

Domestic critics of the war have so-far focused on a forensic dissection of what American commanders knew about Maliki’s plans and when. Many have also hastened to argue that the flaws in the operation demonstrate the incompetence of the ISF. Those enthralled with prosecutorial inquisitions can amuse themselves by trying to figure out when Maliki told General David Petraeus he was going to attack, but what difference does it make? The operation was clearly imperfectly planned and was launched before the necessary conditions had been set. Failures of coordination did not prevent coalition forces from providing necessary air support–the most important reasons for Maliki to coordinate with Petraeus–even if it did require scrambling to meet an unexpected situation. Failure to set conditions properly led to a flawed operation, but reinforcements were flowing in when Sadr backed down, and it is hard to say how things would have proceeded if he had decided to fight.

It is too soon to judge the effects of this operation, particularly since those effects will depend heavily on what comes next. The following things, however, are already clear:

Maliki finally did what Congress and the administration have been pressing him to do for almost two years: attack the illegal Shia militias and criminal gangs with the intention of disarming them and establishing the rule of law. It is worth remembering that this undertaking was one of the congressionally mandated benchmarks.

The ISF mobilized more than 30,000 troops for the fight, including thousands drawn from outside of Basra. While it did use some coalition transport, it also employed its own aircraft for the movement, which went relatively smoothly. Again we might recall that a key benchmark in 2007 was the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades (perhaps 9,000 soldiers) to support the Baghdad Security Plan. The ISF just deployed more than three times that number on short notice to fight without coalition ground forces in support.

Iranian military intervention in Iraq should now be manifest to everyone. The commander of the Quds Force was himself involved in the cessation of fighting, and he did not “broker” the deal as a neutral mediator since his forces were among the belligerents.

The ability of the Sadrists and Iranian-controlled Special Groups to plunge Iraq into chaos has been exaggerated. To the extent that they have just tried to do that, they failed completely. In 2004, Sadr threw Baghdad and Karbala into full-scale combat that lasted for weeks and required the deployment of thousands of American soldiers to reestablish control. The most recent showing was a pale shadow of 2004.

Some are arguing that recent events demonstrate the power of the Special Groups. They have certainly been engaged in an offensive against ISF and coalition forces for the past several months–to which the ISF has vigorously responded. When it came to uprisings in the Shia heartland, the ISF prevailed handily. Special Groups and JAM will no doubt reconstitute and try again, and they may do better next time–it would be a grave mistake to underestimate them–but the recent operation has shown only their limitations.

Sadr was in Iran during the entire operation, gave his statements from Qom, made no attempt to return to Iraq to lead his fighters as he had as recently as last year, and appeared both weak and under Iran’s thumb. Sadrist news outlets argue that he has benefited from this, but other Iraqi media disagree, and the case is hard to make if you’re not on the Sadrist payroll.

Reports suggest that the ISF seized and is holding the port of Basra. If so, this would actually be quite a significant gain, since the port was in the hands of criminal gangs and its revenues had been flowing into militia coffers.

Maliki has finally reached out to Shia tribes and accepted the establishment of Sons of Iraq groups–the auxiliary police forces providing security in many Sunni areas–in Shia areas. These would be similar to the awakening movements in Sunni areas and open the possibility of expanding the range of Shia politics and drawing larger numbers of Shia into active participation in the establishment and maintenance of their own security.

The most important fact about the recent operations has escaped most observers, however. The government of Iraq, that group of “Persian ex-pats” as many Iraqis and some Americans call them, went to war against the illegal Shia militias which are thoroughly infiltrated, supported, advised, trained, and led by Iran and its agents. When it ran into trouble, the government called for American support and then began to engage with its own local tribesmen, who eagerly volunteered to support the fight against the foreigners.

Iraq has already demonstrated that it is by far the most serious and determined ally the United States has in the war against al Qaeda by deploying more forces and taking more casualties in that struggle than any other state. After several years in which Americans feared that the Shia government would attempt to triangulate between Iran and the United States without taking sides, the Iraqi leadership has made its choice clear. It chose America. What will we choose?

Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Iraq: The Way Ahead,” the Iraq Planning Group’s phase IV report. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War. Her reports and analysis of the Iraq war are available at www.understandingwar.org.

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Iraq: Sadr party faces rising isolation

By HAMZA HENDAWI and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writers

Associated Press, Sun Apr 6, 4:01 PM ET

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties have closed ranks to force anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to disband his Mahdi Army militia or leave politics, lawmakers and officials involved in the effort said Sunday.

Such a bold move risks a violent backlash by al-Sadr’s Shiite militia. But if it succeeds it could cause a major realignment of Iraq’s political landscape.

The first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall, the officials and lawmakers said. The government intends to send the draft to parliament within days and hopes to win approval within weeks.

“We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament,” lawmaker Hassan al-Rubaie said Sunday. “Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament.”

Al-Sadr controls 30 of the 275 parliament seats, a substantial figure but not enough to block legislation.

Al-Rubaie said the threat was so serious that a delegation might have to discuss the issue with al-Sadr in person. The young cleric, who has disappeared from the public eye for nearly a year, is believed to be in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

In a rare public signal of dissent in Sadrist ranks, al-Rubaie complained that “those close” to al-Sadr “are radicals and that poses problems,” suggesting that some of the cleric’s confidants may be urging him toward a showdown.

“We must go and explain to him in person that there’s a problem,” he said.

U.S. officials have been pressing Iraq’s government for years to disband the militias, including the Mahdi Army.

All major political parties are believed to maintain links to armed groups, although none acknowledge it. Some groups, including militias of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and al-Sadr’s chief rival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, have been integrated into the government security services.

That put them nominally under the government’s authority, although they are believed to maintain ties to the political parties and retain their command structures.

Uprisings in 2004 by al-Sadr’s militiamen ended through mediation by top Shiite clerics. Shiite leaders then attempted to bring the Sadrists into the political mainstream, offering them Cabinet posts and deferring to them on some major security issues.

But attacks by Shiite extremists continued, allegedly carried out by pro-Iranian splinter groups.

The militia issue took on new urgency after al-Maliki launched a major operation March 25 against Shiite extremists in Basra and fighting quickly spread from the southern port city to Baghdad and elsewhere.

The Sadrists believed the Basra crackdown was aimed at weakening their movement before the fall elections. They insisted al-Maliki was encouraged to move against them by their chief Shiite rivals — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

U.S. and Iraqi officials insist the crackdown is directed at criminal gangs and splinter groups supported by Iran.

Al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets March 30 under a deal brokered in Iran. But the truce left the militia intact and armed and did not address the long-term threat.

“We want the Sadrists to disband the Mahdi Army. Just freezing it is no longer acceptable,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior adviser to al-Maliki. “The new election law will prevent any party that has weapons or runs a militia from contesting elections.”

Broad outlines of the strategy to combat the militias were made public late Saturday in a statement by the Political Council for National Security, a top leadership body including the national president, prime minister and leaders of major parties in parliament.

The statement called on parties to disband their militias or face a political ban. Although the statement did not mention the Sadrists, the intent was clear.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said Sunday that the statement was adopted after “heated, cordial, frank and transparent discussion,” Al-Rubaie and another Sadrist lawmaker who attended objected to the call for militias to disband, he said.

Al-Rubaie confirmed Talabani’s account and said “our political isolation was very clear and real during the meeting.”

Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said the Sadrists must either disband the militia “or face the Americans.” He was alluding to the possibility of full-scale U.S. military involvement if al-Sadr refuses to disband his militia and the government decides to disarm it by force.

Al-Sadr has called on supporters to stage a “million-strong” protest in Baghdad on Wednesday to mark the fifth anniversary of the city’s capture by U.S. troops.

“We will watch it carefully,” said Reda Jawad Taqi, a senior member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

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