A look at Operation Knights’ Assault

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.”

Operations Continue

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.

For more information on the Mahdi Army, see Sadr calls for Mahdi Army cease-fire and Dividing the Mahdi Army.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • Dan R. says:

    Thanks as always, Bill. While there are certainly things that could have been done better, all in all it sounds like Maliki and the Iraqi government are the winners here. Sadr and his guys can make all the claims and issue all the “demands” they want. But the bottom line is that the Mahdi Army got it’s butt kicked in the streets, the IA is now in firm control of the cities in the south, the bad guys are on the run, and the much-feared “shiite intefada” failed to materialize.
    Of course, that doesn’t stop newspapers like The Guardian and the NY Times from trying to spin the operation as a big win for Al-Sadr and a disaster for Al-Maliki. But by now, the public has grown to expect this kind of relentless negativity from our news media.
    Facts are stubborn things. Three months from now when the IA is still in control of the shiite south and the great majority of the Mahdi Army’s thugs have all been either killed or arrested, the media is gonna look pretty stupid … just as stupid as they looked when they told us we were “bogged down” in Iraq in 2003 and “bogged down” in Afghanistan in 2001.

  • Michael says:

    Excellent look at what happened. Questions now are why?
    1) Why did Maliki move up schedules?
    2) Why did he or his generals use a green unit?
    3) Why did he move so fact without adequate time for MNF-I?
    4) Does this make him a risk in the future to work with?
    Some of this will be utilized by people against the war of liberation for Iraqis. If the Media has spun this, so to will people in other powerful places.

  • Robert B says:

    Bill, I think for Sadr’s march (last para) you mean Najaf switched now to Baghdad. Did Sistani veto the Najaf locale?

  • Michael says:

    I’m very curious at any feedback from Iraqi Generals. Will they admit mistakes? At least our military and insight from Roggio and others is turning up these issues.
    What is interesting is how IA were surprised at the amount of weapons and infiltration by Iranian Qods trained forces.
    I’m very curious what instigated the quick move of forces without adquate MNF coverage. Was it the eventual end of cease-fire and IZ and GZ attacks? Did something else spur Maliki to action? His rash moves almost hurt him if not for efforts by MNF-I.
    One thing good out of it however is finding out who would stand, even if 52/14 was green. It also appears some(not just 14th) gave over equipment and helped Sadrist militias. This may have helped flush out infiltrators.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Robert B.,
    You are correct, I transposed the cities… thanks for the correction, it has been made in the posting.
    To be clear here, I think it is too soon the judge success/failure here, it certainly needs time to play out. The Maliki government and the ISF made some real errors here, which might have been mitigated with some patience. I do think the government was working to resolve these problems just as Sadr called his ceasefire. I completely disagree with the rush to judge this as a Sadr victory. His rush to declare a ceasefire did not come from a position of strength, in my opinion. But, his Mahdi Army is still intact.
    The next moves – by Sadr & Maliki and MNF-I are the ones that will really count.

  • AQI Losses says:

    Thanks Bill & DJ,
    Your reporting on Operation Knights’ Assualt has been invaluable.
    The long term results of the events of the past week or so will not become apparent for some time and as Bill commented the next moves by everyone involved will greatly influence that result.
    If operations over an extended period of time continue against the special groups, I believe Maliki has an upper hand. Also, I read a report that Maliki ordered a temporary freeze on raids, which I believe is the ongoing effort to split the Mahdi Army and the more radical components. Looks like the carrot (freeze) and stick (vowing more crackdowns, if don’t lay down arms) approach.

  • SoldiersDad says:

    “I’m very curious what instigated the quick move of forces without adquate MNF coverage.”
    If I want to make sure a legbreaker gets elected Governor..I put the legbreaker in charge of the polling places.
    There are going to be provincial elections in October…Basra…or significant portions of it are controlled currently controlled by the legbreakers.(Along with Sadr City and a few other spots).
    If Malliki waits until June to begin clearing the legbreakers out of Basra…he won’t be finished by October. The good residents of Basra…not wishing a personal visit from the legbreakers will end up voting for the legbreakers. This is how Saddam managed to get 99.9% of the vote in every election he ever held.
    If one looks back at the national elections..there were more than a few neighborhood precincts that were polling very near 100% for a given party. That would indicate that in those neighborhoods people were not voting “Freely”.
    So militarily it might be better for Malliki to wait until June to start clearing Basra , Sadr city and various other places controlled by Legbreakers…but politically he needs the clearing done by September at the latest.
    Various US battles have been timed for political reasons…the same will be true for Iraqi battles.
    In hindsight was it wise to leave the Battle of Fallujah until after the 2004 US Presidential Elections?

  • Marlin says:

    The British are now back on the ground inside the city of Basra in an advisory role for the Iraqi Army.

    “This measure is part of our continuous support to the Iraqi army 14th Brigade, after the mutual training we had with them inside the Iraqi cities and currently we are applying this supervision and advice on the ground,” Captain Chris Ford told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI).
    “The Brit soldiers who support Iraqi troops have strong ties with the 14th Brigade, through the combined training operations, and these experiences will help them to provide support in the suitable time,” he added.
    Ford perceived that offering support in this way “will enable the MNF to provide active air-surveillance for the Iraqi operations, in addition to continue providing advice in the fields of planning and logistics.”

    Aswat al-Iraq: British army: units deployed in Basra

  • Neo says:

    Excellent summation Bill.
    Hopefully we can soon get confirmation that it was 52nd IA Brigade that cracked, than we don’t have to back-peddle before going further into the subject. One thing from your article that I would like to underline is the fact that the IA could move reserve units into battle when it was clear the initial force was not going to be adequate. The Iraqi Army had reserve units, plus adequate coordination and logistics to quickly move outside forces in. Those units were quality units and furthermore forces remaining in other areas of the south were adequate to contain the Mahdi army. This displays a flexibility and depth of forces not previously seen from the Iraqi Army. This is missed in nearly all the reports about the recent fighting.
    There will be complaints that additional MNF forces had to be utilized for logistics, advisors, embedded troops, and extra special-forces. It must be pointed out that a year ago Iraqi forces couldn’t be moved around without week or months of preparation even with considerably more NMF help. While desertions point to ongoing problems with loyalty and unit cohesion, other aspects related to force capabilities seem to be greatly improved.
    Returning to the subject of force depth, the Mahdi Army had no depth to it’s forces. While it certainly has plenty of forces to cause considerable chaos they don’t have anything to sustain a prolonged battle or the ability to bring in help when things are going against them. Most people are missing this in their analysis. While the initial resistance in Basra may have been considerable without any sort of reserve JAM cannot sustain a lengthy battle.
    If I were going to pick at the piece, I think the level of chaos in Basra during the first few days is a bit underplayed. Sadr’s withdrawal is also worth further scrutiny. Did Sadr’s decision to pull his troops back essentially hand much of the city over to the Iraqi army without continued resistance? It seems so. Sadr’s decision basically gives the Iraqi Army much of Basra without JAM continuing the fight. Basra’s a big place, I’m not entirely convinced the Iraqi army would have done so well at fighting their way through and they certainly would have taken a beating in the course of taking the city. Maliki’s move to press ahead of schedule may have been rash, but Sadr’s quick decision to pull back may actually be the critical decision that allows the occupation of Basra to successfully move months ahead of schedule. I would maintain that much of it is already irreversible. The Iraqi army has been allowed to set up within Basra for the better part of a week and continues to solidify gains that have been made.

  • LT Nixon says:

    Thank you for an honest analysis and facts on the recent operations in Baghdad and southern Iraq. There was way too much disinformation in the American news, probably due to political posturing for the upcoming Petraeus/Crocker testimony.

  • Marlin says:

    Nibras Kazimi is not impressed with how the New York Times and the Washington Post constructed their articles on desertions and underperforming troops in the Iraqi Army.

    Here’s how I see it: about 550 policemen (around 50 of them officers) are up for disciplinary action across all of Iraq, not just Basra. As for the Iraqi Army, less than 250 are facing various forms of legal action or reprimands; I don’t have a reliable number for how many of those are officers though I’ve been led to believe that it is less than 20.
    Overall, we’re talking about a total of 800-900 across all of Iraq, and not just Basra as the New York Times tried to obliquely portray it. That’s 800-900 out of the estimated 700,000 soldiers and policemen who now serve in Iraq’s various security and military outfits. I’m no math wizard, but I think that’s about 0.12 percent. Speaking for myself, I can live with these numbers.

    Talisman Gate: Numbers, Sources and Assertions

  • inmypajamas says:

    This seems to be typical of Sadr – he crumbles at the first sign of significant resistance, cries, “Uncle!” and then regroups to fight again. This latest venture will leave him room to spin his “victory” to willing recruits and cause trouble yet again. Why is he allowed so much freedom? I know Maliki turned a blind eye in the past to his activities but what is up with continuing to allow Sadr to operate with seeming impunity? His freedom provides an opportunity for the remaining resistance elements to coalesce around one leader now that Al Queda and other opposition groups have been successfully broken up. I am not clear on why he continues to organize and fight without much hindrance.

  • Neo says:

    Let’s please turn this debate away from the number of desertions.
    The issue, while significant, has already received far more emphasis than it deserves. The anti-war propaganda mill would love for this whole argument to be framed in terms of desertions for the next month without regard to everything else involved.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al Askari went on the record with Reuters saying about 1000 ISF deserted. AP had similar numbers. I thought the NYT piece (along with the Gordon piece the day prior) was fair and non-hysterical, like previews accounts in that paper and others.

  • Marlin says:

    Even retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey believes the Iraqi Army accomplished something significant in Basra.

    In Basra the nascent Iraqi Army-also riddled with incompetence and self-doubt-actually came out looking better against Iraq’s well-established militias than the American Army had 65 years earlier against the entrenched Nazis, says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. “At Kasserine we got our asses kicked. These people didn’t,” McCaffrey says.
    Despite a spate of early grim assessments of Basra in the U.S. media, U.S. military observers on the ground in Iraq are more sanguine, says McCaffrey, who has long been a critic of the war. Yes, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia has held on to its weapons and much of its turf. But Iraqi forces appear to be largely in control of the city and its ports, and Basra is still mostly calm. Even more important, the Iraqi security forces have remained mostly intact. Rather than bolting or deserting in droves, as happened so many times in the past, only in relatively small numbers did some Iraqis desert to the other side, McCaffrey told me. That’s a big step forward. “On balance it appears as if the Iraqi security forces for the first time stepped up, largely independently of the United States, and tried to establish law and order in the most important city in the country save Baghdad,” says McCaffrey, who recently canvassed top U.S. military commanders in Iraq.

    Newsweek: The Basra Model

  • Richard Aubrey says:

    The desertion issue is interesting.
    It does say something, though, about those who stayed.

  • Neo says:

    Your second to last sentence still has the cities reversed.
    I believe you need to change the sentence from “But Sadr suddenly changed the venue of the protest to Najaf.”

  • anand says:

    Any preliminary indications on how IA 3-9 T55 Tank and IA 1-14 (ORA level C1) performed in Basrah? {Suspect they fought well.}
    My initial thinking was that much of the negative reporting on the 14th IAD in Basrah related to the poorly British trained IA 2-14 (started as SIB, then became IA 5-10.) Any indications on how they did? Poorly I expect.
    The two INP battalions? They are very green, so I doubt they fought well. There was substatial negative reporting on the INP in Basrah.
    The ISF fought well in Baghdad and across the south excluding Basrah.

  • anand says:

    Most of JAM loyal to Muqtada did not fight the IA in Iraq. This is especially the case outside Basrah.
    In Baghdad, only some of JAM fought. Much of JAM stayed on the sidelines and did not join in.
    This suggests that most of Muqtada’s followers do not want to fight the popular IA, and seek political redress within Iraq’s democratic system. I find this promising.
    I don’t care if Muqtada wins the elections (is able to form a coalition government where the coaltion partners restrain Muqtada) provided he disarms JAM, allows an independent judiciary, and choses to act in a legal and constitutional matter.
    Muqtada needs to crush AQ and improve GoI governance and the Iraqi economy to get reelected. Muqtada has to behave responsibly once in office. Muqtada will likely try to keep his distance from Supreme Leader Sayyed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in public. Most Iraqis dislike Khamenei.

  • anand says:

    “Returning to the subject of force depth, the Mahdi Army had no depth to it’s forces. While it certainly has plenty of forces to cause considerable chaos they don’t have anything to sustain a prolonged battle or the ability to bring in help when things are going against them. Most people are missing this in their analysis. While the initial resistance in Basra may have been considerable without any sort of reserve JAM cannot sustain a lengthy battle.” Agree completely. Novices discuss battles. Professionals discuss logistics.
    Muqtada’s decision to call off JAM is good news. It has allowed the IA to peacefully occupy most of Basrah (improved security for Basrayans.). It also allows the Iraqi economy to improve short term. These are the things that matter in COIN.
    If Muqtada wins the provincial elections in Basrah, he will have a stake in continuing the status quo policies in the province. He will also have no one to blame if Basrah does not improve.

  • jj mollo says:

    He pushed it up three months and still won? That sounds like generalship to me. Strike while the iron is hot. His men are now tested, they did it mostly without coalition support, and he has three more months than he would have to consolidate the government’s monopoly on force. More than that, he has three extra months to work on goodies for the voters. Money is not the problem for the government, it was the security situation.

  • DubiousD says:

    In those southern cities where the Iraqi Army now has a presence, what sort of welcome are they receiving from the local citizens? I often hear this type of question posed vis-a-vis the MNF, but I’m curious as to how the IA are regarded in JAM strongholds like Basra.

  • Alex says:

    Quite interesting. There is a saying in counterinsurgency, I believe originally by TE Lawrence, that it is better for a host country (Iraq in this case) to do a good-enough job than for us to come in and do things perfectly.
    I’m looking forward to reading the next ISF OOB update.

  • Richard1 says:

    IRANIAN forces were involved in the recent battle for Basra, General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, is expected to tell Congress this week.

    Military and intelligence sources believe Iranians were operating at a tactical command level with the Shi’ite militias fighting Iraqi security forces; some were directing operations on the ground, they think.

    Petraeus intends to use the evidence of Iranian involvement to argue against any reductions in US forces.

  • Michael says:

    Agreed on reacting to fast and Sadr lost ground. I’ve never stated Maliki lost, but Sadr did earlier.
    Many good comments.
    SoldiersDad, thanks for political angle. I was wondering if maybe new intel on the ground might have influenced Maliki’s decision, or that ceasefire was up for renewal/ending as well.
    where is info from? ahh… found it, hmmm….
    I know they’ve captured them in the past along with hezbollah operatives. I’ll wait to see what Petraeus states.

  • If Sadr ‘won’, how come …

    A week ago, the media consensus was that Sadr had won, or at least lost least in the last round of fighting between him and Iraqi government forces. The consensus was also that of course the government would stop arresting his rowdies and Iranian Revo…


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