from The Independent & The Independent on Sunday
14 January 2007 11:49
By Kim Sengupta
Published: 14 January 2007
The narrow ambush alleys of Kadhamiyah, the tenements providing sniper cover at Diyala Bridge, the dusty, sprawling killing grounds of Sadr City. These are the strongholds of the Shia militias that the Americans will have to take in the battle for Baghdad.
The US forces in the "surge" into the Iraqi capital face a war on two fronts. The murder miles of Haifa Street and Adhamiyah are the homes to the Sunni insurgency, which continues its bloody course four years after the official end of the war, and there is no sign of this stopping as the US forces take on the Shias.
There are other logistical difficulties of fighting an urban guerrilla war in a city like Baghdad. The militias have spread from their power bases into the so called "mixed areas". Outside the Hamra Hotel, where the dwindling group of Western journalists in Baghdad stays, there are checkpoints run by the Mehdi army, led by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; their Shia competitors, the Badr Brigade; and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Further out are the Shia Defenders of Kadhamiyah, set up by Mr Sadr's cousin Hussein al-Sadr and the government-backed Tiger and Scorpion Brigades.
They all look similar: balaclavas or wrap-around sunglasses and headbands, black leather gloves with fingers cut off, and a very lethal arsenal of weapons. When not manning checkpoints, they hurtle through the streets in 4x4s, scattering the traffic by firing in the air. It is impossible to say which particular group they belong to.
This is what confronts the US forces gathering for George W Bush's last throw of the dice in Iraq. He sees the battle to wrest control of Baghdad from the militias as the key to salvaging victory in the Iraqi quagmire, but distinguishing friend from foe will not be easy. The President has already warned that bloodshed will increase, but will there be any gains?
The main target, the Mehdi army, has around 50,000 well-armed fighters in the capital, mostly concentrated in Sadr City, the vast slum next to Baghdad, and the Shia holy city of Najaf and surrounding areas. But Mr Sadr also has 25,000 more militiamen in the south, where British forces will be in the firing line of retaliation for what the Americans do in Baghdad.
The Shia militias are backed by Iran, while the Syrians are accused of harbouring Sunni insurgents. In his speech last week Mr Bush once again accused the two countries of "allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq ... We will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq. "
To many, this rhetoric is paving the way for a wider escalation. William Arkin writes in The Washington Post: "There is an ominous element here ... To me that means the threat of strikes on targets in those countries." A British analyst, Robert Emerson, adds: "The Americans want to take on the Shia militias. Iran backs them, and will undoubtedly step up covert aid to them. How long will the Americans let that continue before they do something?" Even if there is no "hot pursuit", the Iranian response to US action in Baghdad is likely to place British forces in danger. The UK military has withdrawn from much of the south, concentrating its 7,200 troops in Basra. US authorities were against the British pullout from much of Maysan province, including the capital, Amarah, and are now particularly concerned about plans to hand over all security in the province, including the long Iranian border, to the Iraqi government at the end of February.
Instead of ending patrols by the 600-strong detachment of the Queen's Royal Lancers, the Americans want the British to significantly boost their numbers, especially at the border, in anticipation of Iran's attempts to aid its allies. Doing so would not only mean reversing the process of gradual disengagement, under which up to 3,000 British troops were due to return this spring, but getting sucked back into what threatens to be a prolonged war of attrition. This is particularly problematic for Britain, with its Afghanistan commitment in the background. The accepted consensus is that the Taliban, with hundreds of fighters training and arming in Pakistan, will launch a spring offensive after the winter lull in fighting.
But the first effects of the "surge" will be felt in Baghdad. At present the Americans have more or less withdrawn from the streets of the city, leaving Iraqi forces to man the checkpoints. Instead they base themselves in "Fort Apaches" - heavily fortified camps - emerging to carry out operations, invariably with the use of pulverising, and sometimes indiscriminate, firepower. After being reinforced by some 20,000 troops, the Americans will once again deploy on the streets. Baghdad will be divided into either nine or 11 sectors, according to different contingency plans being drawn up, in which the US troops will work alongside Iraqi forces with "embedded" US personnel.
The soldiers will aim to create mini "green zones" - cut-down versions of the area in the capital where US and British officials, and the Iraqi government, take refuge - guarded by checkpoints, sandbags and barbed wire. Residents would be issued with ID badges, and their every entry and exit logged.
To do this the US and Iraqi government forces will have to win back these areas from the militias. In particular they will have to take on the Shia fighters, many of them government backed, who have been accused of operating death squads.
Ironically, these death squads are the direct by-product of US policy. At the beginning of 2004, with no end to the Sunni insurgency in sight, the Pentagon was reported to have decided to train Shia and Kurdish fighters to carry out "irregular missions". The policy, exposed in the US media, was called the "Salvador Option" after the US-backed counter-insurgency in Latin America more than 20 years ago, which led to 70,000 deaths and countless violations of human rights. Some of the most persistent allegations of abuse have been made against the Wolf Brigade. Their main US adviser until April last year was James Steele, who states in his autobiography that he commanded the US military group in El Salvador during the height of the guerrilla war. The complaints against Iraqi special forces continue.
While in Iraq, I interviewed Ahmed Sadoun, who was arrested in Mosul and held for seven months before being released without charge. He showed the marks on his body of beatings and burning. Mr Sadoun, 38, did not know which paramilitary group had seized him. But they were accompanied by American soldiers, and the Wolf Brigade was widely involved in suppressing disturbances in Mosul at the time.
As for the Mehdi army, the Americans fought a short and fierce battle with Mr Sadr's militia in Najaf two years ago. At the time, however, the Sunni insurgents were still the bigger threat, and it was deemed convenient to let Shia clerics organise a truce. Since then the Mehdi army has been left relatively untroubled by both the US and UK forces. When it briefly took over Amarah in a recent action and blew up a number of police stations, a British force was sent up from Basra, but did not intervene, leaving the Iraqi army to deal with the situation.
There are also tricky political considerations. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, depends on parliamentary support from Muqtada al-Sadr's followers. Recently US and Iraqi forces went into Sadr City, named after the cleric's father, to capture, according to the military, "a top, illegal armed group commander directing widespread death-squad activity".
Instead of congratulating the troops, Mr Maliki angrily complained he was not told about the operation. "We will ask for clarification of what happened in Sadr City, we will review the issue with the multinational forces so that it will not be repeated," he added. Falan Hassan Shansai, leader of the Sadr bloc, which has 30 of the 275 seats in parliament, warned of the consequences if there was a repetition.
Many in the US military believe the Shia militias, especially the Mehdi army, is too entrenched to be removed. Sergeant Jeff Nelson, an intelligence analyst with the US army's 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, in Baghdad, said recently: "They have infiltrated every branch of public service and every political office they can get their hands on. As soon as the US leaves, they will be able to dominate the area with key citizens, key offices."
Sgt Nelson said his battalion had investigated 40 sectarian killings and collected 57 bodies in a week. None had led to an arrest: "Sometimes we have a feeling of complete hopelessness."
The new strategy is modelled on an operation carried out by Colonel HR McMaster in Tal Afar, north of Baghdad, in 2005. His troops took over the town, which had a reputation for violence, searched it section by section, established a presence and kept the insurgents out. Col McMaster became established as a counter-insurgency expert, and his name is intrinsically linked with the new policy. Both President Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, have spoken of his action at Tal Afar as a blueprint for Iraq as a whole.
The overall commander picked by Mr Bush to lead the mission, Lt-Gen David Petraeus, is another Iraq veteran with a counter-insurgency reputation. He is one of the few senior members of the US military to support the " surge". He also supports the "hearts and minds" policies advocated by the British military, again unlike many of his US colleagues, who believe the army is for fighting, not nation-building.
They are not the only ones, however, who doubt whether some sort of Northern Ireland option can really be applied to a state in anarchy, like Iraq, especially by an army not culturally attuned to it. The time when it could have been applied, say US and British officers, has gone. The last chance may have been in 2005, when a plan presented by the British was rejected by Donald Rumsfeld.
Critics point out that Baghdad is not Tal Afar, a small place in a remote area. There is also deep scepticism about the ability of the Iraqi armed forces to fulfil their role in the equation. They were supposed to play a major part along the Americans in Operations "Forward Together" and "Forward Together II" in Baghdad last summer. However, at that time, only two of the six battalions supposed to take part in the mission actually turned up.
The correct analogy for the coming battle for Baghdad is not Tal Afar, but a US operation carried out in the Iraqi capital last year. More than 12,000 US troops, supported by helicopter gunships swooping over the rooftops, were sent in to destroy the Shia militias and break the back of the Sunni insurgency.
But by the end of the campaign the power of the gunmen had not diminished, and the scale of bloodshed had risen. It is an ominous template for a struggle on which not only President Bush's credibility, but the future of Iraq is likely to depend.
US ARMY: The plan to 'sanitise' Baghdad
Most of the extra 20,000 US reinforcements will deploy in Baghdad, which will be divided into up to 11 sectors. A plan based on the successful pacification of the northern town of Tal Afar will be carried out, with " safe zones" being created, surrounded by checkpoints, sandbags and barbed wire. Residents would be issued with ID badges, and have their entry and exit logged. The eventual aim is to "join up the dots" and create a large "sanitised" area, from which both Shia militias and Sunni insurgents will be kept out. US troops will also be "embedded" with Iraqi forces taking part in the operation.
IRAQI GOVERNMENT FORCES: Infiltrated and unreliable
The battle for Baghdad will fail unless the newly trained Iraqi army, paramilitary and police forces play their part. In a strategy called " clear and hold", the ultimate aim is for them to retain control when US forces eventually go back into their barracks.
But the Iraqi police in particular has been heavily infiltrated by Shia militias, and the Iraqi army, although not tainted to such an extent, has not proved the most reliable of allies for the US in the past. Out of six battalions scheduled to take part in an operation in Baghdad last year, only two turned up for duty.
MILITIAS: US to take on Shia leader
Until now the focus of US action in Iraq has been the Sunni insurgency. The new strategy is to take on the Shia militias which, often in official uniforms, have operated death squads and carried out sectarian attacks on Sunnis and, at times, Christians. The main target of the Americans is said to be Muqtada al-Sadr, whose heavily armed Mehdi army is blamed for much of the communal strife. Any action against his fighters in Baghdad may lead to retaliation against British troops in the Shia south. There is also anxiety about the reaction of Iran, which backs the Shia militias.