Sunday, June 15, 2008

Offensive In The South; Mahdi Army Demobilized & Sadr Withdraws From Elections

Events are moving with amazing rapidity in Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi forces have begun a major offensive in the southern province of Maysan. Elsewhere, U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to target criminal Iranian proxies and have made several major captures.

And in very big news indeed, the Mahdi Army now appears to be no more. Sadr has issued a directive demobizing the Mahdi Army, promising to reconstitute a new force that will only be authorized to target U.S. forces. Additionally, Sadr has announced he will not participate with any candidates in the upcoming provincial elections. Sadr's star has plummeted and his popularity appears to be reaching a nadir.

Iraqi forces, supported by U.S. forces, are opening up a new front, launching a major offensive in Maysan Province, a hotbed of Iranian and Sadrist activity. Nibras Kazimi, who runs Talisman Gate, posted two weeks ago on this planned offensive, providing a lot of interesting background:

. . . The Iraqi Army and the Marines are preparing for a major campaign against Mahdi Army and Iranian targets in Maysan Province (‘Amara). Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may even put the entire elected leadership of ‘Amara—many of whom are Sadrists—out of a job, by flexing his authority under emergency powers. There is even talk of air strikes against military targets—weapons depots, transportation vehicles and individuals—on the Iranian side of the fence; these are targets that are arming and otherwise supporting the Special Groups throughout Iraq.

Iran’s logistics trail goes from Maysan through southern Babil/Hillah Province (al-Hamza) and from there into central Iraq, i.e. Baghdad. . . .

. . . Maysan is a weird place: even after draining the marshes in the early 1990s, Saddam could not claim full control of the province. And ever since the late 1980s, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has maintained forward bases deep inside Iraqi territory, such as ones around the town of Al-Mijerr al-Kabir. Iraqi opposition groups were active in these areas right up to the fall of the regime. Furthermore, Iran had a large recruiting pool among Marsh Arab refugees who lived in camps almost right across the border.

. . . [A]rrest warrants for Maysan officials are being prepared, and intelligence is being gathered about other Sadrist leaders who have gone into hiding there.

I expect the battle for Maysan to be difficult: this would be Iran’s last stand in Iraq. The fighting would also be occurring on topographical and human terrain that the Iranians have been studying and cultivating for decades. It could start incrementally, and the ante could be raised as the operation faces increased resistance, eventually leading to bombing runs inside Iran.

. . . It should be noted that the vast majority of Sadrist support in Baghdad and Basra comes from families that trace their roots to Maysan Province. Furthermore, Maysan is home to the largest concentration of Iraqi tribes with unknown Arab ancestry—most likely remnants of pre-Islamic ethnic groups and whatever was left in the wake of rebellions by black slaves and gypsies in ‘Abbasid times.

Read the entire post. That offensive in Maysan began yesterday, according to the Long War Journal, though there have been no reports as of yet of any major engagements or arrests.

Elsewhere, U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to target Iran's proxy forces, with the most recent being an important capture of a "brigade" commander in Sadr City. As LWJ notes, since the Basra offensive that began on March 25:

. . . Hundreds of Mahdi Army commanders have been killed or captured in Baghdad, Sadr City, Basrah, Amarah, Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah, Hillah, Najaf, Al Kut, and other Shia cities.

The most high-profile Mahdi Army leaders killed or captured this year include Arkan Hasnawi and the leadership of the Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib Jihadi Brigades in Karbala. Many weapons smugglers, financiers, cell and battalion leaders, facilitators, counterfeiters, and other senior operatives have been killed or captured.

Read the entire article. Also several days ago, "Iraqi police . . . captured three Iranian-backed Special Groups operatives behind the kidnapping and murder of five US soldiers at the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center in January 2007."

The biggest news comes from Moqtada al Sadr, who has issued a directive demobilizing the Mahdi Army and withdrawing from the upcoming elections. Sadr announced, at the same time, that he will reconstitute a small force that will only be authorized to target U.S. forces. This from Nibras Kazimi:

I read Sadr’s directive yesterday: I have to admit that at first I dismissed it as a forgery, seeing that it appeared on an anti-Sadrist website that had peddled forged statements attributed to Sadr in the past. Not only was the wording weird and disjointed, but Sadr actually demobilizes the Mahdi Army, going far beyond “freezing” its activities as he did twice in the past year. He limits “resistance” to a “group that shall be authorized to do so by us in writing soon” and that they alone were the ones allowed to carry arms. Everyone else must turn pacifist.

. . . WaPo’s story . . . seemingly confirms that Sadr did indeed release this statement, as evidenced by the alleged reactions of his aids “some of whom appeared surprised by the cleric’s announcement”—surprised? Why of course, that would be the natural reaction to a declaration of surrender! . . .

Read the entire post. What appears to be happening is that Sadr, whose star has been falling like lead in Iraq over the past year at least, is trying to salvage at least the appearance of relevance. WaPo, after duly reporting the Sadrist spin in its lead story, states:

. . . [S]ome Iraqis saw both of Sadr's recent decisions as a sign of his movement's frailty following military offensives by the Iraqi and U.S. militaries against his supporters in the southern city of Basra and the Sadr City area of the capital.

Critics of Sadr say he is pulling out of the elections to avoid embarrassing losses and keeping most of the Mahdi Army from fighting so that it will not face defeat by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

"These statements and allegations of special companies are nothing but attempts to cover up their weakness," said Kassim Ali, 24, a student at the Kufa Technical Institute. "The Mahdi Army cannot face up to the well-trained and well-equipped Iraqi army."

Read the entire article.

And Sadr does appear to be incredibly weak. You will recall that Sadr called for weekly demonstrations after Friday prayers to protest the ongoing SOFA negotiations to set the framework for U.S. military presence in Iraq after the U.N. mandate ends in January, 2009. The number of people attending those demonstrations in Sadr City suggest that support for Sadr has crashed:

This from the weekly standard.

. . . The U.S. military released imagery of the demonstrations which occurred the past three Fridays. The first week, the military estimated Sadr had 10,000 protesters in attendance on May 30; about 3,000 on June 6; and 1,500 today. These numbers are paltry, as Sadr City contains an estimated 2.5 million Shia, and his protests in 2006 would draw hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The military also noted that some Iraqis in Sadr city were “coerced” to join the demonstrations. “Clearly the number of participants is decreasing,” said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Stover, the spokesman for Multinational Forces Baghdad. “The steady drop might suggest increasing support for the GoI [government of Iraq] and less support for Muqtada al Sadr.”

Read the entire article. It would seem that the only way the U.S. and Iraq can be defeated will originate out of the halls of Washington.

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