Eleven days after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched Operation Knights’ Assault in Basrah, the picture of the fighting in the city has become clearer. Maliki launched the operation after giving limited notice to Multinational Forces Iraq, and an inexperienced Iraqi Army brigade from the newly formed 14th Division cracked doing the opening days of the fighting. Basrah Operational Command rushed in forces into Basrah, including Army and elite police units, to stabilize the fighting, and six days after the operation began, Muqtada al Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army to stand down in Basrah, Baghdad, and the South.
The start of the operation
While the government of Iraq has been planning to conduct an operation to clear the militias from Basrah for some time, Maliki pushed up the time schedule for the operation by months, The New York Times reported on April 3. Maliki also failed to give proper advanced notice to the US military and almost no notice to the British forces in the south. This insured the Coalition forces were unable to properly back up the Iraqi Army with needed combat and logistical support from the start of the operation.
The US military was given notice of the operation on March 21, just four days before the Iraqi security forces began the advance into Basrah, The Times reported. General David Petraeus reportedly tried to dissuade Maliki from conducting the offensive, but the Iraqi prime minister pushed forward. Additional Iraqi Army, police, and special forces units began arriving in Basrah on March 24, and Maliki started the operation the next day.
The Basrah operation was initially planned to be executed in July 2008, when sufficient forces were available. The Iraqi Army and police have been massing forces in the South since August 2007, when the Basrah Operational Command was established to coordinate efforts in the region. As of December, the Iraqi Army deployed four brigades and an Iraqi Special Operations Forces battalion in Basrah province. The Iraqi National Police deployed two additional battalions to the province.
A green unit falters, reinforcements arrive
Maliki’s gambit to advance the Basrah clearing operation took a major setback once Iraqi security force met stiff resistance from the Mahdi Army. The decision to rush the operation forced a newly formed brigade into the fight just one month after the unit graduated from basic training. While the brigade has not been named, it was likely the 52nd Brigade from the 14th Iraqi Army Division, the most inexperienced units in the Iraqi Army.
The 52nd Brigade is far from “one of [the Iraqi Army’s] best – and also one of the most loyal to Prime Minister Maliki,” as reported at CBS News. The formation of the 14th was rushed, as it was not due to be stood up until June 2008. The first brigade was transferred from Wasit province, the second brigade was created in May 2007, and its third brigade (the 52nd brigade) graduated the Besmaya Unit Set Fielding Program on Feb. 18, just five weeks before the Basrah operation began. The officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers have not had time to work together, nor have they been tested under fire. The 14th Division still does not have its fourth brigade, nor does it have the requisite logistical and support units.
The fighting caused the 52nd Brigade to crack under the strain of the fighting, according to US and Iraqi military officials. An estimated 500 Iraqi Army soldiers and 400 policemen deserted during the Basrah fighting, Iraqi military officials told The Associated Press. The 500 soldiers were reported to be from a single Iraqi Army battalion. Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al Askari told Reuters an estimated 1,000 members of the security forces deserted. Some turned their weapons and vehicles over the Mahdi Army.
A brigade commander and the executive officer of a police unit in Basrah also deserted their posts, the Times reported. Several dozen officers are believed to have failed to carry out their duties. Most of those who deserted were green troops from the newly formed brigade. “From what we understand, the bulk of these were from fairly fresh troops who had only just gotten out of basic training and were probably pushed into the fight too soon,” an unnamed US military officer told the Times. Overall, “1,000 to 1,500 Iraqi forces had deserted or underperformed,” according to the Times, a number “that represent a little over 4 percent of the total” forces in Basrah.
The Iraqi security forces in the Basrah region have long been suspected to be infiltrated with militias. The operation in Basrah has exposed the level of infiltration, which at first glance, to not appear to be as severe as thought. There are over 16,000 police and 14,000 soldiers deployed in Basrah.
The Iraqi government has vowed to prosecute those who failed in their duty. “Everyone who was not on the side of the security forces will go into the military courts,” Maliki said. “Joining the army or police is not a trip or a picnic, there is something that they have to pay back to commit to the interests of the state and not the party or the sect.”
The Iraqi Army reinforces Basrah
As it became clear the operation in Basrah would be a tougher fight than expected, the Iraqi military and Multinational Forces Iraq began to augment its forces. At least one Iraqi Army brigade, the Iraqi National Police Emergency Response Unit, and the Hillah Special Weapons and Tactics unit were rushed to Basrah. An unconfirmed report received by The Long War Journal indicates the Iraqi Army brigade may have been the 14th Brigade from the 4th Iraqi Army Division, one of the Army’s best units.
The US military hastily cobbled together advisers for the Iraqi formations sent into Basrah. A company from the 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division assigned to provide route security was rushed into Basrah to fill this role. Meanwhile, the nascent Iraqi Air Force conducted resupply missions in conjunction with the US Air Force. Equipment and soldiers were ferried into Basrah via air. US and British warplanes began to strike at Mahdi Army positions in Basrah, with the help of US forward air controllers embedded with Iraqi forces.
The Iraqi security forces fared better in the greater South
While the focus of the reporting centered on Basrah, the Iraqi security forces also combated the Mahdi Army in the Shia cities between Basrah and Baghdad. The Iraqi Army was able to secure Hillah, Kut, Karbala, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Amarah in a matter of days after the fighting started. By March 29, the fighting in these cities largely stopped.
The Iraqi security forces quickly silenced the Mahdi Army in Najaf, the scene of Sadr’s uprisings in March and August 2004. Pro-government protests were staged in Diwaniyah, Karbala, and Hillah just days after the Basrah operation began. Security was deemed good enough in Hillah that the police SWAT team was deployed to Basrah.
Scores of Mahdi Army fighters were killed and hundreds captured in the southern region between Baghdad and Basrah. Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of Multinational Division Central, which controls Karbala, Najaf, Babil, and Wasit provinces, said 69 Shia terrorists were killed and 537 suspects were captured. Of those captured, about 230 remain in custody. Lynch estimated about 600 Shia terrorists were divided among 10 different cells in the provinces in Multinational Division Central’s area of operations.
Sadr orders cease-fire
Just as the Iraqi security forces began to address the shortcoming in the operation and the situation in the center-south began to stabilize, Sadr decided to pull his fighters off the streets. Members of Maliki’s Dawa political party approached the leader of Iran’s Qods Force asking him to get Sadr to stop the fighting. Shortly afterward, Sadr ordered his troops to withdraw from fighting and issued a nine-point statement of demands for the Iraqi government.
By this time, the Mahdi Army took significant casualties in Basrah, Baghdad, and the greater South. “Security forces killed more than 200 gunmen, wounded 700, and arrested 300 others, since the beginning of the military operations in Basrah,” said Major General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, the director of operations for the Ministry of the Interior. The Mahdi Army suffered 173 killed in Baghdad during the six days of fighting.
Spokesmen from the Mahdi Army claimed the Maliki government agreed to Sadr’s terms, which included ending operations against the Mahdi Army, but the Iraqi government denies this. “I refuse to negotiate with the outlaws,” Maliki said on April 3. “I did not sign any deal.”
The Iraqi military and police continue to carry out raids against Shia terror groups in Baghdad, Basrah and the South. Maliki has changed his rhetoric, however, and indicated that “criminals” are now the target of operations. He also stated that security operations would be undertaken in Shula and Sadr City in Baghdad, two strongholds of the Mahdi Army. “I expect more crackdowns like this,” Maliki said.
Both US and Iraqi troops have conducted several raids against Shia terrorists in Baghdad and the South over the past several days. Iraqi security forces killed seven “criminal members” and captured 16 during three separate operations in Basrah today. US troops have advanced into Sadr City to deny the Mahdi Army launch locations for rockets and mortars fired at the International Zone. US Special Forces captured an “Iranian-backed Special Groups criminal” and two associates in Hillah on April 3. Coalition aircraft killed two Shia fighters after they fired on a patrol in Basrah on April 2. Iraqi police killed six members of the “criminal gangs” in Basrah and captured six that same day. Iraqi troops occupied the ports of Khour al Zubair and Umm Qasr in Basrah province on April 1.
Sadr has called for a million-man demonstration in Najaf on April 9 to oppose the US presence in Iraq. “The time has come to express your rejections and raise your voices loud against the unjust occupier and enemy of nations and humanity, and against the horrible massacres committed by the occupier against our honourable people,” Sadr said in a statement. But Sadr suddenly changed the venue of the protest from Najaf to Baghdad. Sadr’s followers held a protest today, but an estimated 1,500 marched in Baghdad.
DJ Elliott contributed to this report.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.