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March 29, 2008
Iraq Army Offensive in Basra Stalls
Despite being reinforced by 5 battalions, the Iraqi army is having a hard time dislodging Mehdi Army units from neighborhoods they control in Basra.
Information gathering on both the Basra offensive and American actions in Baghdad against the Mehdi is an adventure. Media reports are contradictory and the spin coming from the the Administration, war opponents, media outlets with their own agenda, and anti war opponents makes trying to discover what is happening very difficult.
However, there are a couple of sources that we have relied on in the past who have proved to be as accurate as is possible in a war zone.
Bill Roggio has been to Iraq many times and has sources in the military as well as the Iraqi Army. He reports some limited successes for the Iraqi Army but also their inability to make much headway against the heavily armed Mehdis:
Basrah has been the scene of the majority of the fighting. Major General Ali Zaidan said that 120 Mahdi Army and other Shia terrorists have been killed since the fighting began, while another 450 have been wounded. Iraqi police said they have captured 218 "militiamen" since the start of the operation on March 25.And speaking of IED's, this first person account by Washington Post reporter Sudarsan Raghavan reveals an interesting conversation with one of the Mehdi fighters:
As a heavy barrage erupted outside his parents' house, Abu Mustafa al-Thahabi, a political and military adviser to the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, rushed through the purple gate and took shelter behind the thick walls. He had just spoken with a fighter by cellphone. "I told him not to use that weapon. It's not effective," he said, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade. "I told him to use the IED, the Iranian one," he added, using the shorthand for an improvised explosive device. "This is more effective."The Mehdi commander claims they bought the Iranian IED from "smugglers." No doubt. Using a third party to smuggle weapons into Iraq from Iran would make sense if Iran was trying to hide its footprint.
Michael Yon phoned in a report from Iraq to Glenn Reyonolds yesterday. Glenn summarizes:
A few key points: (1) It's likely to get worse before it's better; (2) No one seems to doubt Iranian backing for the violence; (3) This isn't about religion, it's about money and power; and (4) Unlike Al Qaeda in the north, this isn't so much a fight to the finish as violence as a negotiating tactic. It's not a civil war. Take a listen, and then take a moment to marvel at today's technology, which lets me do this stuff from my basement at the spur of the moment.The fighting in Sadr City is chaotic, to put it mildly. The US military insists Iraq forces are taking the lead. But journalists on the ground are reporting heavy engagements between US and Mehdi forces. The explanation for the confusion is that the entire labryinth of Sadr City streets and neighborhoods is controlled by the Mehdi army. US foirces - in support of Iraqi army units - sometimes must engage the Mehdi as they come into their field of fire and the enemy starts shooting at them. In effect, the Mehdi are being cleared out and as they run, they come in contact with US forces "in the rear" of the Iraqi army - despite the fact that there really isn't much of a "rear" in a 360 degree battle zone.
Confused? So am I. But the bottom line is the Iraqi army in Baghdad is doing most of the fighting.
To sum up:
1. The reinforced Iraqi army is performing adequately for the most part in Basra. Reports of defections to the Mehdi Army are overblown. The Iraqis need air support from the Americans and British to make any headway against the heavily armed Mehdis.
2. Prime Minister Maliki seems determined to bring the situation in Basra to a head.
3. The fighting has the potential to get out of control and engulf Shia Iraq in a civil war. They aren't there yet but the danger is real.
4. Sadr City is no place to fight a war. Ambushes are frequent and the Mehdi have all the advantages due to local knowledge of the battlefield and their ability to melt into the civilian population. Expect some kind of negotiated settlement in Sadr City soon.
5. Don't expect the violence to die down anytime soon.