Iraqi military continues operations in Basrah


Iraqi Army applicants wait outside the army recruitment center in Basrah, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad on April 1, 2008. About 1,000 men from the southern cities of Basrah, Amarah, and Nasiriyah trooped to the recruiting center in Basrah to apply to be government soldiers. Reuters photograph.

Three days after Muqtada al Sadr ordered the Mahdi Army to withdraw from the fighting in Baghdad and the Shia South, the fighting has dropped dramatically. The Iraqi government has denied that it has agreed to Sadr’s terms. But the government has softened its rhetoric against Mahdi Army, instead shifting its focus on the “criminal elements” just as the US military has done over the past year. Meanwhile, the Iraqi security forces are continuing operations in Basrah.

The Iraqi military has continued to target Mahdi Army elements in Basrah and in Baghdad and southern Iraq, but the government is now referring to them as “criminal elements” and maintains anyone breaking the law will be targeted. “The guarantees for the Sadr Trend and for all Iraqis say that the Iraqi government has law and everyone should abide by the law,” said Dr. Ali al Dabbagh, the spokesman for the Iraqi government in a press briefing on March 31. The Iraqi government “will not target a certain trend, but will target only the criminals. And this is what the Iraqi government is doing and what it’s committed to do.”

The Iraqi government has now essentially co-opted the same strategy of dealing with the Mahdi Army as the US military instituted in late 2006. The strategy works to divide the Mahdi Army into legitimate actors and criminal groups. This strategy allows for the government to target the illegal elements of the Mahdi Army in raids under the mantle of the law. US and Iraqi security forces have conducted numerous operations against the Special Groups using this method. This has caused schisms inside the Mahdi Army, with some elements breaking off to receive support from Iran and others defying Sadr’s orders to lay down their weapons.

While the intensity of operations against the Mahdi Army in Basrah and the South have decreased since Sadr called for his unilateral cease-fire, Iraqi security forces continue to conduct operations. Today the Iraqi Army marched through the Mahdi Army-infested Hayaniyah district in central Basrah. On April 1, the Hillah Special Weapons and Tactics unit captured 20 “smugglers” in Basrah. On March 31, Iraqi Special Operation Forces killed 14 “criminals” during a raid against Mahdi Army forces occupying a school in Basrah.

The Iraqi security forces will continue to clear Basrah, according to the Army. During Sunday’s press briefing, Major General Abdul Aziz said several districts of Basrah were cleared, and these operations would continue. “Our troops managed to clear certain areas in Basra, Najubya, Al Ma’qil, Al Ashshar Wazuber and Garmat Ali and other places as well,” said Aziz. “Starting from today, we will work on clearing the other places from the wanted individuals and criminals and those who are still carrying weapons.”

The Iraqi military and police are also kicking off a recruiting drive to beef up the size of the security forces in Basrah. “I also instructed to stop encroachments on state-owned lands and public property and back up the Iraqi police and army forces with 10,000 troops residents of Basra, who volunteered for national duty,” Maliki said. Over 1,000 Basrah men flocked to join the Army just one day after Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army to leave the streets.

The Iraqi Army has also moved troops into the ports of Khour al Zubair and Umm Qasr in Basrah province on April 1. The Iraqi troops replaced the facility protection services guards who are often accused of criminal activities.

Iraqi security forces also have had great success in security the cities in the South, with minimal US assistance. Hillah, Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniyah, Amarah, and Al Kut are secured, Aziz said. The Iraqi Army moved additional forces into Al Kut and Amarah and conducted clearing operations in these cities. There was no militia activity in Muthanna province during the six days of fighting in late March.

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.



  • Marlin says:

    A factoid from Major-General Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. forces south of Baghdad.

    Lynch said he backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s decision to crack down on the Mehdi Army in southern Iraq.
    He said it had allowed Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military to capture nearly 600 criminals and gunmen, of which 200 remained in detention.
    “This is not a bad thing as some have portrayed. We were able to take the fight to them,” he said.

    Reuters: INTERVIEW-US commander urges patience on Iraq troop levels

  • Anti-Herman says:

    Considering the new focus an Shia groups, where exactly do we stand with Sunni groups and AQI?
    Is Mosul and the surrounding areas their last holdout? It appears that lately, the majority of casualties are around Bagdad. Shia related?
    Also, any chance of co-operation between AQI and the various Shia groups?

  • crosspatch says:

    Excellent stuff, gentlemen. One question; I have been hearing that the sectarian parties might be in for a rougher go of it in the future. The idea being that Iraqis are becoming increasing fed up with the sectarian fighting and might be more likely to support more inclusive secular political groups. Anyone hearing anything on the ground one way or the other in that regard?

  • bb says:

    The meme in the media about this being a disaster for Maliki is driving me bananas. I’d really love to hear Bill or DJ comment more in detail on the sources of the disconnect between Bill’s reporting and the reporting of so many other outlets. Even one of the Counterterrorism Blog contributors is calling the engagement a “strategic victory” for Al Sadr. By all logical reasoning, Sadr got freakin’ crushed. I know the MSM is biased, but CT blog is not, and even the MSM is not usually out to lunch by this great an extreme.

  • Neo says:

    In Basra the government appears to have a number of priorities.
    1. Controlling essential economic areas and infrastructure while they consolidate their position downtown. Much of this will take considerable rehabilitation.
    2. Taking control of Basra’s port facilities. How much will Sadr’s people retain?
    3. Taking control of boarder areas and approaches to Basra. Control over the Tannumah neighborhood on the east side of the river. Moving more effective troops into the ports of Khour al Zubair and Umm Qasr will no doubt help efforts to clamp down on smuggling operations and arms flow into southern Iraq.
    4. Recruiting police with more loyalty to the government to serve alongside IA forces.
    5. Showing presence to the local populous. Marching through Hayaniyah is a symbolic challenge JAM and a message to the populous of Basra that the government is here to stay.
    6. Establishing adequate logistics for the new troops.
    These are primary areas to watch over the comming weeks/months.
    Much of this effort is not about fighting. It will be a broad array of changes that support security and undercut Militia’s ability to maintain themselves and their support base within the population. While the government may have lost a certain amount of face in the confusion of last weeks battle, they are in a much better position to capitalize on their present situation than prior to last weeks battle, when they were essentially on the outside looking into the cities affairs.
    Others more qualified than I, can certainly add to, adjust, comment on this list.

  • davidp says:

    allowed Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military to capture nearly 600 criminals and gunmen, of which 200 remained in detention.

    This shows that a) tag and release is still happening, and b) numbers of captured don’t count as real casualties for the Mahdi army, because they get released again. If two thirds have already been released, how many will be kept?
    None the less, these operations have been a good step towards proper government of Iraq.

  • Neo says:

    Successes can be claimed for either side and the relative importance of factual details weighted in accordance to any viewpoint. Last weeks battles were not one sided with an obvious victor. That in itself may satisfy some that the venture was a loss. Sadr’s people did rally within Sadr City and in Al Kut. Whether he gained any real tactical advantage in either place is debatable. Clear gains were made by JAM in Al Kut until a withdrawal to original positions was negotiated. Sadr City demonstrated its ability to resist and is still in a bit of an uproar. The Iraqi Army forces around Al Kut will have to reassess and reassert their hold on the city. Rockets are still being launched at the Green Zone. Those are the two positives JAM can take from this. That and getting the western press all stirred up.
    At the other extreme JAM lost other engagements, some badly. They didn’t do well at all in Baghdad’s western suburbs. After coming out initially they got no support from the populous and were unsuccessful in taking over government checkpoints. They soon ceded the streets back to the IA and went to ground. Efforts at terror attacks in Karbala were totally ineffective. Hillah was a disaster for JAM. The IA ripped them to pieces. I’ll be curious how well they’ll sustain efforts in Hillah after the mauling they received. Battles in Najaf and Diwaniyah amounted to much less than early reports indicated. They both ended in the IA reasserting control.
    A lot of fuss has been made about what a mess Basra was. The battle was a mess and Maliki’s bravado about crushing the enemy didn’t amount to much. In the end, JAM for whatever reason didn’t maintain its stance within the city. JAM kept their weapons but negotiated away their tactical positions within the city. The government may have traded it’s honor in, but is exactly where it wanted to be, or at least as far as any realistic possibility of success would allow at this point.
    It seems that Maliki and the IA have lost face from what happened during this battle. Lost face with whom, the people of Sadr City, pundits, defense experts, newspapers, NPR? It is objected that the IA couldn’t plan and execute independently, that they needed air and artillery and logistics support from US forces. They negotiated there way out of a lost situation. In the end the IA negotiated the gains they made in Basra. Maliki promised to crush the Mahdi army, but settled for acceptance of Iraqi army advances into the city. All are shortcomings it would seem to some. How relevant any of these objections will be shall be seen in the coming weeks. I still say this leaves the Iraqi government in a position to capitalize and JAM with less than they started.
    Also: davidp makes a good point too. The number of captures is less critical because most of them will be turned free. That does recoup a certain number of losses for JAM.

  • Michael says:

    What is truly interesting in all of this is how freedom of press and the people are slowly starting to see better, more just government. No, not perfectly, but its a start. You can’t go from tyrannical, oppressive regimes in a few years to sprawling liberty and justice.
    It took over a hundred years for freedom of all people in America. Still, not until 1960 and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech.”
    The last statment re: different reasons and sectarian breakup to new political lines is also a welcome advancement of liberty. I see little rays of light spreading and breaking thru. So much of this is vetted by and encouraged by our military as advice and by example to the people daily. By example, the Iraqi people are seeing just how good and just people should behave towards them. Giving them this added protection is giving them a chance to see freedom and liberty in action. Something many have never seen in their lives.
    MSM is far to impatient and so to are many well informed pundits that know better. Success is happening in many small ways. Admission that there are problems. The adherance to Rule of Law, not matter if some of it is flawed. More and more you see it being institutionalized.
    Sadr was defeated fully. Even if missteps took place. Clear message were sent all over Basrah and not just to Sadr. Rule of Law, justice, free flow of market and the beginning to an end of old habits of smuggling and topping off profits to families in charge. Of course there will be compromises. Not everything must be solved militarily.
    But overall, this is a good start in many ways. More information has come out in the open regarding Qods as Master of Sadr’s house. Iran is being directly confronted now by Iraq. The battlelines have been drawn. Not only did Sadr blink, but so to did Qods in a way. Message was delievered thru them and Sadr stopped.
    That may be the most important development of this entire exercise.

  • Marlin says:

    Just a follow-up point on capture and release tactics. I don’t know this for a fact, but it would seem likely to me that the Iraqis would be copying the Americans and logging biometrical data about each individual before they were released (with a warning). That way if they are captured again, the consequences are likely to be much more severe.
    Just a thought.

  • Marlin says:

    Possible as early as this Friday, April 4, and for sure by next Wednesday, April 9, we should be able to start to gauge just how strong al-Sadr is after the Iraqi surge in the south.

    Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Thursday for a million-strong demonstration against U.S. “occupation”, a potentially destabilising show of force after his followers battled U.S. and government troops.
    The demonstration would take place next Wednesday April 9, the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, when the U.S. commander in Iraq is also scheduled to brief Congress in Washington about progress in the war.
    The statement called on Iraqis of all sects to descend on Najaf, site of annual Shi’ite pilgrimages that frequently attract hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
    The cleric also called for a “peaceful sit-in” in Baghdad on Friday to protest against bombings, arrests and vehicle bans that continue to seal off parts of the capital.

    Reuters: Iraq’s Sadr calls million-strong march against US

  • SoldiersDad says:

    “The idea being that Iraqis are becoming increasing fed up with the sectarian fighting and might be more likely to support more inclusive secular political groups. Anyone hearing anything on the ground one way or the other in that regard?”
    It is normal in times of crisis for people to become more religious. The time honored wartime saying “There are no atheists in foxholes” comes to mind.

  • Marlin says:

    This article has a good overview of the fighting in Baghdad during the past week.

    In this volatile slice of northwest Baghdad, at least, U.S. and Iraqi forces say the Iraqis fought admirably, but they acknowledge problems in command and control, in logistics and among national police who were not trained to handle urban warfare.
    As well, Iraqis in front-line positions ran out of ammunition and had to hurry to the next battle position to get more. Iraqi police officers sometimes proved unreliable at backing up army soldiers.
    Petit said the tide turned in this area Friday, after Iraqi troops repelled an attack at one of their positions without U.S. assistance. It emboldened them, he said.
    He is confident that things will stay quiet in his corner of Baghdad, Petit said, because Iraqi forces here proved tougher than militia members had expected.

    Los Angeles Times: Can Iraq’s soldiers fight?

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/03/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  • rejjs says:

    >The Sunni parites never portrayed themselves as “Sunni parties.”

  • Marlin says:

    Major General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf, manager of the MOI’s National Command Center has provided an update on recent activities in Basra.

    “Security forces killed more than 200 gunmen, wounded 700, and arrested 300 others, since the beginning of the military operations in Basra,” Major General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf, manager of the MOI’s National Command Center told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI).
    He added “MOI’s special forces arrested five of the criminal gangs’ leaders on Wednesday’s evening, killed six others, and were able to seize their weapons.”
    Khalaf did not mention identities of those who were killed or arrested, nor their affiliations.

    Aswat al-Iraq: 1200 people killed, wounded, or arrested in Basra

  • mjr007 says:

    Any word on how many IA and IP casualties have been taken?

  • Marlin says:

    mjr007 –
    I have not seen any press releases or articles with that information.

  • Neo says:

    “When someone says there were 600 “criminals” detained, and 200 still in custody, the reaction is that they’ve released 400 “criminals” rather than that in the confusion of the moment, they picked up 600 people, many of whom should never have been picked up at all.”

  • Marlin says:

    More interesting information continues to trickle out of Iraq.

    Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Thursday offered to help purge Iraqi security forces of militia members.
    “And if the government cannot make infiltrators and other Baathists, terrorists, militias of parties and saboteurs surrender, we are ready to cooperate with them [the government] to cleanse our army and police of them. Let the government and people be one to liberate Iraq of the occupier.”
    A senior Iraqi official told CNN that more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers deserted in Basra and other hot spots during the fighting. There were others who simply took off their uniforms and joined the Shiite militias the army was battling, the official said.
    A closely held U.S. military intelligence analysis of the fighting showed that Iraqi security forces controlled less than a quarter of the city, according to U.S. officials in the United States and Iraq. They said Basra’s police units were deeply infiltrated by members of al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army.

    CNN: Al-Sadr offers to help Iraqi security forces

  • Neo says:

    The number the CNN artilcle gives of 1,000 doesn’t seem to make a distinction between soldiers and police. The number of police deserting in Basra has been given at 500 plus you have police deserting their posts in Sadr City and Al Kut to list the major problem areas.
    If this instead refers to actual IA desertions than it is the first I have heard of such large numbers

  • Marlin says:

    Neo –
    The New York Times presents the numbers a little differently.

    More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the inconclusive assault against Shiite militias in Basra last week, a senior Iraqi government official said Thursday. Iraqi military officials said the group included dozens of officers, including at least two senior field commanders in the battle.
    A British military official said that Mr. Maliki had brought 6,600 reinforcements to Basra to join the 30,000 security personnel already stationed there, and a senior American military official said that he understood that 1,000 to 1,500 Iraqi forces had deserted or underperformed. That would represent a little over 4 percent of the total.

    New York Times: More Than 1,000 in Iraq’s Forces Quit Basra Fight

  • Marlin says:

    The details here are more pessimistic.

    A senior official in Iraq’s Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss military operations publicly, said Iraqi troops were overwhelmed by the second day of fighting.
    “I was afraid the Iraqi forces would break,” he said.
    The official said he estimated that 30 percent of the Iraqi troops abandoned the fight before a cease-fire was reached. He also said that soldiers had been hindered by ammunition and food shortages and that some Iraqi police troops, who were supposed to be backing the Iraqi army, had actually supported the militias.
    The official said the militias had 12,000 to 15,000 fighters — roughly the same number as Iraqi troops. But being in their home territory gave the militias an advantage, he said.

    Washington Post: Basra Assault Exposed U.S., Iraqi Limits

  • DJ Elliott says:

    – First you have this fiction:
    “The 14th division of the Iraqi army, which led the fight in Basra, was supposed to be one of their best – and also one of the most loyal to Prime Minister Maliki – and yet they took heavy casualties, had to be bailed out of firefights, and according to Browne, showed “fragility” under fire. (Nice euphemism, that.) If that’s how the 14th performed, what does that say about the rest of the Iraqi army?”
    – And this is what they are trying to play up:
    Quote: But most of the deserters were not officers. The American military official said, “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.”

  • Marlin says:

    I’ve been looking this morning to see if anything would come of the sit-in today that al-Sadr called for yesterday. This is all I have been able to find.

    The Sadrists, or Iraqis loyal to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, started a peaceful sit-in on Friday in the area of Abu Dsheir, southwestern Baghdad, upon orders from Sadr, to protest the government’s escalations against the bloc, a Sadrist official said.
    “Sadr’s office pitched a camp for a peaceful sit-in in Abu Dsheir upon orders from Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday to break the political stalemate and have the items of an agreement implemented,” Abu Jaafar, the official in charge of Sadr’s office in Abu Dsheir, told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI) by telephone.

    Aswat al-Iraq: Sadrist official says bloc started sit-in to protest govt. escalations

  • Slowak says:

    OK now real.
    A) The operation is still underway and NYT didnt wait and declared defeat of Iraqi army.
    B) It will take several weeks until the oweral reliabylity of the iraqi units could bee assesed.
    C) The reasos´s for why the iraqi´s started operations are to dificult to understand from new york office… lets the thinks looks bleak…

  • Neo says:

    A little more detail from an AP release:
    “The officials said the mutiny involved a full infantry battalion belonging to the 4th Iraqi Division numbering about 500 men and some 400 policemen. The deserters also turned over to the Mahdi militia some of their weapons and vehicles, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.”

  • DJ Elliott says:

    They left the 1 off of the 14th Division.
    This is probably more on the 52nd Bde/14th Division “breaking”.

  • Neo says:

    Thanks DJ

  • Neo says:

    Sounds to me that they need to station troops out of the immediate area where they were recruited. I hear reports of troops being afraid for their families. British trained IA troops should not be stationed in Basra. It’s too easy to throw down your rifle and go home.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    I doubt that it would have mattered.
    The 52nd was assembled, issued weapons/equip and field trained at Besmaya (35km east of Baghdad). It was in the 14th Div less than a month when this happened.
    – Less than two months since the officers and men met each other.
    – Less than a month in their area.
    – No trust in each other or knowledge of the area worth talking about.
    History is full of green units that broke the first time in a fight. The 52nd had no business being committed this early in their existence…

  • Slowak says:

    Some usefull notes, I thing.
    1) How many Iraqi security forces troops were in action during last battles?
    I heard that from 15,000 to 50,000 troops and police.
    2) How many of them deserted or AWOL?
    Some deserters are nothing special when security forces are build.
    3) Of course it is not the best idea to send BMPs to urban warfare. I speak with some of our army soldiers and thay say that BMP is not bad, but not in in fully RPG-enviroment.

  • Marlin says:

    al-Sadr has a change in plans.

    A Sadrist lawmaker on Friday said the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered to stage one million-strong March in Baghdad instead of Najaf.
    “People attending Friday prayers were informed the march would be in Baghdad, not the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf as announced on Thursday.” A Sadrist MP Salih al-Ugaili told Aswat al-Iraq-Voices of Iraq (VOI).

    Aswat al-Iraq: Al-Sadr orders 1 million march in Baghdad instead of Najaf-MP

  • Michael says:

    Some insight from ground level at OPFOR…
    Rich Lowrey received email forwarded from Marine in Iraq…

  • Michael says:

    ugh… sorry, Richard Lowry

  • Michael says:

    If any march, 10,000 or 1 million…
    Good for them. Only proves an open society is working. They’ve staged this before and many times the calls for millions fell to thousands. Each time Sadr’s hoodlums pull this, each time they fail, each time he retreats leaves him looking weaker and foolish.
    This is especially true if IA can act in COIN like fashion and reach in and provide for the people, protect them and keep the goons and criminals off peoples backs.
    The government, IA, CF have a great opportunity here to expose the criminals for what they are. Mafioso who mistreat and mislead their own people.

  • Marlin says:

    Oliver North has an article out about the Basra surge gleaned from contacting some of the coalition personnel with whom his Fox News’ “War Stories” team was embedded last December during their ninth trip to Iraq.

    — The Iraqis planned and executed the operation with little U.S. involvement and managed to commit more than 40,000 troops in high-intensity combat against well-armed, militia terrorists in six cities — a feat that would have been impossible just six months ago.
    — Intelligence collected during the operation confirms that Iranian Quds Force fighters have heavily infiltrated southern Iraq and that Iranian weapons, explosives and equipment continue to be delivered to areas previously controlled by the Mahdi army.
    The Iraqi troops fought well in both day and night operations. Their officers and NCOs are leading from the front. The militias — and their Iranian sponsors — got their butts kicked.”

    Townhall: Basra: Fact and Fiction

  • 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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