The Basrah Gambit -- Defining Moment for Iraq or the Jaysh al-Mahdi? (Updated w/ Links)

Engaging the Mahdi Militia in Basrah and labeling them as equal to Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a deadly gamble that may leave Iran the winner.

On 19 March, 2008 CNN's Iraq war correspondent, Kyra Phillips gave a live interview from in front of the crossed Swords at the Tomb of the Unknowns parade ground in Baghdad's International Zone (IZ). She cheerfully reported that Iraq had somehow changed after five years and the lack of mortar and rocket fire allowed her to broadcast live. Rockets and mortars were a daily occurrence in the heavily fortified center of government over the previous 1,825 days. On this indirect fire free day, Phillips proclaimed, "there was a time twice a day there would be mortar rounds coming into this area. Now, five years later, Kiran, very rarely are you seeing that type of action, mortars or rockets coming in here. And the fact that I'm here live right now tells you this is a sign of progress."

The media's definition of "very rarely" would be exactly four days. That Sunday the IZ and surrounding neighborhoods would be bombarded with a 12-hour long barrage of rockets and mortars, which killed 13 civilians in the outlying neighborhoods. The barrages continued throughout the week and embassy workers and residents of the IZ were informed they could not go outside of concrete structures without body armor and helmets -- a standing order for the first five years, which somehow needed to be reiterated. Phillip's ridiculously premature assessment that the surge had dispelled mayhem and resentment of the 2003 invasion, was short-circuited by the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), or Mahdi Militia.

The JAM are an armed Shiite paramilitary group that have spent the last five years fighting American forces with Iranian weapons, systematically murdering Sunnah insurgents, conducting ethnic cleansing of non-Shiite civilians and playing bugaboo as an influential part of the Iraqi government. Within days, soon after the death toll of US forces in Iraq crossed 4,000 soldiers, CNN's rosy predictions were replaced with breathless Breaking News reports from Iraq's second largest city, Basrah. It was engulfed in brutal combat.

Operation Predictable Outcome

The limited successes of the 2007 Surge, the increased manpower injected into Multi-National Force - Iraq (MNF-I), are completely misunderstood by both pundits on the right and the left as well as its progenitor, the White House. This is clearly indicated by attempts by both sides of the political aisle in Washington to hail the combat in southern Iraq as both success and failure. Both sides miss the point entirely.

While some progress related to the Baghdad Security operations and usurping some insurgent groups away from extremism by forming the Sahwa (Awakening) councils contributed to lessened violence, it was the July 2007 truce and the August 2007 unilateral ceasefire announced by the JAM leader, Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr that resulted in the 60% drop in violence that journalists like Kyra Phillips enjoyed until last week.

More interestingly, it was the MNF-I that broke the truce last Tuesday when they felt the Iraqi army ready to take on the JAM in their southern stronghold.

The Maliki Gambit

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrived in Basrah on 24 March ahead of what was being labeled "a major security push" that was massive for the Iraqi army. It was a planned gamble to snatch Iraq's second largest city away from the JAM.

The operations in southern Iraq began when the Iraqi army launched a major offensive on 25 March. This nameless operation, lets call it Operation Predictable Outcome, was launched suddenly and was reported in the press as Iraqi forces being attacked by the JAM. Within hours, 15,000 Iraqi army and police were pushing into the city. Through the media was fooled into believing that Basrah was embroiled in militia fighting and the army was intervening, it would take one announcement from PM Maliki to clear the air. Maliki announced to tribal leaders that this operation against the Mahdi militia was weeks in preparation.

The Basrah operation appeared to be a chance for the Iraqi army to attempt the "seize, clear, control and retain" strategy. Maliki would adopt the same counterinsurgency pattern seen in the 2007 Baghdad Security Plan (BSP), Operation Enforcing the Law (Fadhl al-Qanoon).

The first objective is to neutralize and/or drive out the insurgents and criminal elements like the notorious Garamsheh tribe. The army would then start securing the local population from the insurgents to dry up their base of support, most likely through compounding neighborhoods with Texas barriers, ala Baghdad. The next phase would be to segregate the hot sectors of the city from each other and keeping a heavy boot down on resistant sectors under their control.

If this week's poor showing is any indicator, they will need far larger involvement of US forces for combat support or a heavy British presence to secure the gains necessary for the core elements of the BSP to take root in Basrah. Depending on how critical this demonstration is to the White House we could see heavy combat between the JAM and MNF-I in the weeks to come.

The Jaysh al-Mahdi's stiff in-your-face resistance in Basrah may be just a desperate short term response to the government's offensive. Then again, after months of light skirmishes and training, it may have presented the JAM with a fortuitous opportunity to conduct a major live fire exercise and to evaluate its combat viability for when America withdraws.

The JAM sent a direct message Maliki defense ministry personnel to indicate exactly how personal a stake they have in their Basrah actions. The spokesman for the BSP, Tahseen Sheikhly, was kidnapped from his home after his security detail was slaughtered and his house set afire. He lived in a Shiite neighborhood.

Playing Splinter Cell - Targeting the JAM, Piece by Piece

For the last year the MNF-I has embarked on a campaign to isolate the JAM one cell at a time and bring them to heel through a series of targeted raids. Referring to these groups as "Rogue" or "Splinter" Jaysh al-Mahdi and categorized as belonging to Iranian trained "special groups" they were believed to be roadside bomb laying cells that did not heed the control of Muqtada al-Sadr and went on their own to attack the coalition. It is a neat trick semantically and created a pathway for the coalition to engage the JAM by putting one group at a time under the umbrella of Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF). The AIF designation meant they were no better than al-Qaeda and could be killed on sight. This progressive labeling allowed the MNF-I to break JAM units they identified apart from major JAM concentrations and clear areas of interest such as Hillah piecemeal. Cautiously balancing al-Sadr's popularity, loyalty and willingness to adhere to the cease-fire, these cells would not be attacked as part of the JAM as a whole, but were attacked a little at a time. These were described as just another localized small unit action against a "rogue" JAM unit. Done this way the entire JAM organization is not called to account and "good" JAM units would be tolerated ... until attacked later when the entire organization was weakened.

These rogue or splinter JAM cells are alleged to be specially trained groups with direct ties to the Iranian al-Quds paramilitary forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but they just may be the JAM cells that MNFI has managed to identify as vulnerable or responsible for continuing sectarian operations. However, this play on words appears to have reached a critical breaking point. Considering that Maliki's Badr Corps is just as closely aligned with Iran as the JAM, it attempt to seize Basrah draws suspicion.

It does not help that Maliki has described the popular Shiite militia as al-Qaeda-like, "Unfortunately we were talking about Al-Qaeda but there are some among us who are worse than Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is killing innocents, Al-Qaeda is destroying establishments and they (Shiite gunmen) also." My discussions this week with Iraqi Shiite friends trapped in Basrah and Baghdad is that most Shiites in Southern Iraq do not see it that way. They see this as a fight between two rival militias, the Badr Corps (aka Maliki and the Iraqi army) and the JAM. The JAM sees only one group being attacked this week and that is the infrastructure of the JAM in Basrah itself.

Its Always Tea Time at Basrah Airport

After news of the Iraqi army offensive stalling, reports surfaced that the US wanted Britain to take part in a surge of its own in southern Iraq, to be supported by the US Marines if need be. As of this writing, the British forces are having none of it. With the exception of a few patrols supporting IA forces and a battery of artillery fire against JAM mortar positions, the British in Basrah remain stubbornly on the sidelines. This is through no fault of their own, as the war remains equally as unpopular in the UK as it does in America.

News of a demand for a British surge became known as reports of a second combined US-Iraqi army offensive was taking place in Mosul against Iraqi Sunnah insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq. In effect, there are now Northern and Southern offensives underway in Iraq indicating a major shift in strategy to retake and secure all sectors of Iraq, most likely by September. Combined with the Baghdad and western provinces operations MNF-I is gesticulating like a wrestler who tentatively pins down an opponent's wrists (Baghdad and Anbar) but is flailing to pin everything else.

This operation is in no way part of General David Petraeus's 2007 surge. This altogether different animal is a nation-wide offensive in the two largest contested cities in Iraq. If successful, the dual arm strategy could empower PM Maliki with military control of all of Iraq's non-Kurdish areas. On the other hand should the JAM as a body throw its full combat weight against the Maliki government in Basrah and start to widely deploy their caches of closely cherished Iranian supplied EFP-IEDs and RPGs southern Iraq from Basrah to al-Kut could fall to the JAM.

Denial Warfare

By the weekend, the Pentagon was trying to spin the Iraqi Army defeats as a sign of the success of the surge in Baghdad. Pentagon press spokesman (and ex-ABC news White House correspondent) Geoff Morrell, stated that the Iraqi army operations were a result of the PM Maliki's desire to take back Iraq's second largest city and a sure sign that the US strategy in Iraq was working. Morrell stated "Citizens down there have been living in a city of chaos and corruption for some time and they and the prime minister clearly have had enough of it ... I think at this early stage, it looks as though it is a by-product of the success of the surge."

That's an amazing statement considering Basrah has JAM forces in the Hayaniyah, Jumhuriya, Five Mile, Downtown, al-Ma`qal, al-Janinah, and al-Kazirah sections of the city as well as reports they control the road from al-Amarah, another JAM stronghold north of the city. No one who has ever been to Basrah would predict that the Iraqi Army, even with US Special Operations support would penetrate the Hiyaniyah district, a large swath of poverty-filled slums dominated by the JAM. Iraqi and US Special Operations had to spearhead the offensive there and still have yet to make more than limited headway. The British tried for five years and now have retired comfortably at Basrah airport.

Where will the Basrah offensives against the Mahdi Militia take MNF-I? Is it possible they will force all of southern Iraq into rebellion again? This played out badly in 2004 as Petraeus' predecessor was ordered by the White House to invade Fallujah while inartfully attempting to arrest al-Sadr. That resulted in the JAM set the entirety of the south afire. A rebellion took months to quell.

Political Aspects of Chaos

Like all good insurgencies, the Iraqi offensive has a broad political component to it as well. However, the American political scene is more critical than that if Maliki and Sadr. The timing of this offensive comes almost a year to date with the beginning of Operation Enforcing the Law, the current surge effort in Baghdad. A successful operation which does not see the Iraqi army completely routed from Basrah would give General Petraeus yet another opportunity to claim before Congress that he needs an additional six months (... by September) to secure the gains of the offensives in Basrah and Mosul and no lessening manpower so he can secure the gains of those gains.

Coming before the election, it could also play well to the we-are-winning-in-Iraq-meme of Senator John McCain. An Iraqi army defeat would only give him cause to demand more time, blood and money so they can gain proficiency.

In fact, Senator McCain may have transmitted the North & South strategy-punch at the end of his visit in mid-March when he said, "Today America and its allies, stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism."

Petraeus is Operating Under Orders

I have no doubt that the warfighters such as General Petraeus and his former deputy General Ray Odierno are doing everything they can to fight the war. That is their job and they like it. They will be the last to acknowledge publicly or privately that they cannot make additional headway in the face of a changing administration or a dysfunctional Iraqi government. They will soldier on and fight whoever comes in their way until ordered otherwise so civilian criticism of them is pointless. Far be it for General Petraeus to kick the can down the road. He wants to deal with the problem at hand, which is to stabilize a fire breathing insurgency long enough to get adequate numbers of trained Iraqi forces online for any decision to withdraw and to get Iraqi reconciliation back on track. That will be winning to him.

Unfortunately, the Basrah Operation may have also been an attempt at a Hail Mary pass for both General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in the heart of the election season. To show dramatic tangible gains all across Iraq would bolster the President's case for continuing the war. This is most likely due to pressure, if not direct orders from the White House through the Vice President's visit last month. Considering their stunning record of incompetence when making even the smallest decisions about Iraq, the over reliance on the Iraqi army to complete even the simplest independent task by all parties may only increase US casualties and public intransigence about the entire adventure.

Unfortunately, scheduling General Petraeus to testify back to Washington in early April while the fighting occurs may herald the end of American "last chances" in Iraq. That depends on the election. The results of November 4th may force both Petraeus and Crocker face up to the possibility that they had better have withdrawal plans drafted by November 5th and standby to execute them on January 21st 2009. No matter who is in charge or how it is sliced, the longer it takes the Iraqis to fight even small pockets of militias means more American soldiers will die in their place.

No one doubts US Supremacy on the battlefield, but this is the Iraqi Army engaged now in Basrah and by all accounts performing poorly. Any attempt to extract them will be a victory for the JAM. On the other hand the JAM can easily make it clear that hardball is a two way game, as they have done in the past. They could suddenly disappear from the battlefield, secretly open up those hidden away crates of Iranian made EFP-IEDs and make Basrah a living hell for whoever comes in with armor. JAM's "brave, but stupid" street tactics have a low survivability rate against US soldiers but they are more than a match for the Iraqi army and police of 2008. The Iraqi army of 2009 may be a different matter, but there is no doubt that the JAM may use on any more ceasefires to train their cadres so they can continue to fight the Iraqi and US army like Hezbollah fought Israel in Lebanon.

UPDATE #1: As predicted, in a replay of the 2004 and 2005 Mahdi militia uprisings, Muqtada al-Sadr ordered the JAM to conduct the cease-fire-and-vanish act that typified his conflicts with Prime Minister Maliki. This is not a victory for Maliki, as the Iraqi army will only symbolically enter Basrah and none of the JAM controlled districts. This is a strategy that worked very well for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and will work again as the JAM gains strength and once again convinces members of the Iraqi police to mutiny and either refuse to fight or abandon their posts to join the JAM.

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Updated SWJ Editors' Links:

The War over the War w/ Tom Ricks - Washington Post online discussion

Did Maliki do Sadr a Favor in Basra? - Noah Shachtman, Danger Room

More on Sadr - Richard Fernandez, The Belmont Club

Stunning Vitory in Basra, or Possibly Stunning Defeat - AllahPundit, Hot Air

The Basra Backfire - Herschel Smith, The Captain's Journal

Discuss at Small Wars Council

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Comments

Wow!

Malcolm Nance, care to post any additional updates?

How on earth were you so blind to Maliki's strategy when he started this? He simply needed to show the Sunnis that he was willing to commit forces against Shites AND to look like a bad a$$. Any success would just be gravy.

Well, it appears that his strategy worked. Care to comment?

So has Malcolm Nance been banned for his pitiful, incompetent, uninformed, defeatest (Obama -Reid chanelling) report on the liberation of Basrah? And if not, why not?

That's a whole lot of verbiage to declare the surge a failure and the Iraqi army's operation in Basra a failure.

Pretty funny considering how Sadr is being marginalized while his organization is being dismantled all the while Malicki ignores his 9 point plan and insists his people be left alone.

So Sadr has lost hundreds of fighters and many more wounded and his lifeline across from Iran was cut off forcing them to make more retreats.

So let's see, you got the surge wrong, the Sadr 'ceasefire' wrong and I've learned from folks there on the ground that Malicki undertook this operation without US advice.

Even with the Sadr types in the ranks that have fled or turned, the Mahdi army of thugs is getting taken down.

The real question is if this is part of a consistent effort that will include the Badr Brigades or if Sadr will be the sole casualty.

Apparently he remains in Iran unable to do anything to protect the continued operations by the Iraqi government against the 'criminals' who have not 'obeyed' the ceasefire.

But please keep churning out the huge verbiage in line with the media thought process that Basra is a failure of the Iraqi government and the US.

See how far that gets you.

"No one who has ever been to Basrah would predict that the Iraqi Army, even with US Special Operations support would penetrate the Hiyaniyah district, a large swath of poverty-filled slums dominated by the JAM. Iraqi and US Special Operations had to spearhead the offensive there and still have yet to make more than limited headway. The British tried for five years and now have retired comfortably at Basrah airport." Malcolm Nance
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Really? Whose side are you on? Read Roggio's report today about IA troops marching through Hiyaniyah and facing no Mahdi Army resistance.

Roggio 1 Nance 0

I say this is a defining moment for Malcolm Nance.

The suggestion that Petraeus and/or Crocker pushed this as a "Hail Mary Pass" before the election seems to come dangerously close to accusing them of treason. Would they really be so cynical as to encourage a desperate military gamble that might well pull American troops into a difficult situation because it's the only way they see to salvage their sides hopes in the Fall election?

Is the general consensus that Badr/ISCI is worse than JAM? If so, why? The latter seems like a far more destabilizing force.

Targeting JAM while leaving Hakim's goons alone is surely one-sided and biased, but neither of those makes it bad. Iran is better off for it? Iran is backing both of them and will benefit from any outcome.

Several comments. The operation is not nameless. Nibras Kazimi has translated the words to "Operation Cavalry Charge."

When you say "due to no fault of their own," I'm not sure what you mean. Either they were under orders not to engage (in which case you're technically right), but it would mean essentially that there is no more reason for the British even to be at the Basra airport. If they are not under direct orders not to engage, then under what kind of twisted COIN doctrine would they not? To take it a step further, I'm not sure there was ever a reason for the British to be involved. Basra has been in a constant state of diminishing security and civility since 2003.

Finally, I have screamed about the horrendous Basra campaign for more than a year now. To call it a failure is an understatement. It is both a military failure and a failure of political will. To me it is, per se, unrelated to the surge or any strategy change, and I must also conclude that more troops are not necessary. What is necessary has to do with how we proceed and engage - or refuse to engage.

I simply don't see that it was or is impossible to target SIIC and JAM leadership, take out the militias, and disarm the rogue elements. It is even possible to confront Iran to a larger degree than we have. We lack the poitical will to do it. Maliki has always lacked the will.

The JAM (and other elements) will stand down, violence will be reduced, Iraqi troops will redeploy, we will continue to lack the political will to do anything about it, Maliki will look like a stooge (having had this happen in 2004 and again later), and the campaign will suffer.

Like you, I'm not happy with the targeting of the JAM while leaving the SIIC militia alone. Looks very one-sided and biased to me. Iran is the better for it.