Monday, March 27, 2006

Hearts, Minds, and Heavy Hands

On Thursady, the US ambassador to Iraq made some comments concerning Iranian links to Iraqi militias. He specifically highlighted the Mahdi army. I commented at the time that this was all very odd. Al Sadr's Mahdi Army isn't connected to the Iranians in the same extensive way that the SCIRI's Badr Brigade is.

Today, the reaons for Khalilzad's statement becomes a little clearer.
Iraqi police and residents said a U.S. raid on a Shi'ite mosque in the Shaab district of east Baghdad sparked fierce clashes with militiamen of the Mehdi Army loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A medical source at Yarmouk hospital said he saw 18 bodies of Iraqis killed in the operation.
It looks like the US military has decided to target the Mahdi Army.

Since late 2004, there has been an uneasy truce between the two sides. Al Sadr's militia essentially controls Sadr City, the poor Shiite area of Baghdad which is named after his father. Around 2 million people live in this district. He also controls areas of the south of the countryt. It appears that after the uprisings of 2004, the US strategists decided that it would be too difficult to confront the Mahdi Army head on. The truce called for the militia to disarm but this has been ignored. Al Sadr is theoretically a wanted man but the coalition have made no attempts to capture since the truce following the uprisings. Al Sadr was basically left to his own devices.

Although he did not participate in December's election himself, his supporters, as part of the UIA coalition, gained around 28 seats.

Today's attack looks like it may be the start of a new strategy of military confrontation. There's no doubt that the militias do need to be disarmed. As usual however, it looks as if the US military is going to make the situation worse rather than better. I suspect the plan is to carry out attacks like these in the belief that it'll scare the Army into disbanding or disarming. I'm reminded of the naive optimism of March 2003.

The Mahdi Army is a militia chock full of die hard Shiite Islamists. They won't be easily scared and are far more likely to start launching guerilla attacks on US troops if confronted and provoked. In other words, this could be the start of what will basically be a second, entirely seperate insurgency. (It should be noted however, that al Sadr has expressed much more of a desire to work with with elected Sunni Islamists than the other Shiite leaders.)

A spokesman for al Sadr responded after the attack.
A senior aide to Sadr, in comments capable of inflaming passions among the radical cleric's supporters, accused U.S. troops of shooting dead more than 20 unarmed worshippers at the Mustapha mosque after tying them up. The mosque's faithful follow Sadr but the aide denied they were Mehdi Army gunmen.

"The American forces went into Mustapha mosque at prayers
and killed more than 20 worshippers," Hazin al-Araji said.

"They tied them up and shot them."
I very much doubt if there is the slightest truth to that allegation. Don't be under any illusions that al Sadr's men are honest people. But, very many of the Shiite inhabitants of Sadr City will certainly take a different view. Many will believe this unquestioningly.

The US military is historically awful at understanding how asymetric warfare is won and lost. In Iraq, they have continually carried out operations which have provided an open goal for "enemy" propagandists. Al Sadr's aide, unfortunately, appears to have a fairly good grasp of that. The fallout from this attack is likely to be increased militancy among the Mahdi Army and, as a bonus, it'll probably create a new wave of recruits ready to fight to free their country from the "barbaric" occupiers.

Not good. Not good at all.

As to how to actually disarm the Mahdi Army, it's going to be extremely difficult however its attempted. In the end, like so much insurgency fighting, the key is hearts and minds. You can't disarm 10,000 or more civilians by force if they don't want to be disarmed. Not unless you're prepared to use Saddam era tactics anyway. You need to persuade people that membership of the Mahdi Army is not in their own best interest. You start at the fringes with the less committed and work your way inwards. The idea is to strip the leadership of their foot soldiers. Eventually, if this is successful, the power of the leadership wanes and they become isolated. Then you take them down.

Instead, today's attack will almost certainly have exactly the opposite effect. Al Sadr will be stronger today than he was yesterday. Idiots.

Sing - You say potato, I say potato, you say Mehdi, I say Mahdi... Both spellings seem to be common.

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