Monday, April 7, 2008

All hell breaking loose

Heavy fighting has erupted in Sadr City, starting Sunday when Iraqi and coalition forces retaliated against the Mahdi Army after rocket attacks rained down on the Green Zone from the Shi'ite slum.

The retaliatory attacks failed to quell the attacks on the Green Zone, however, and rockets continued to fall. Two American soldiers were killed in the Green Zone and seventeen others were wounded. The deaths were the first of American service personnel in the fortified area since last July. The violence spikes as Petraeus and Crocker are in Washington to testify before congress about the stunning success of the Surge™ that has thus far failed to achieve political reconciliation among the fractious groups vying for power in post-Saddam Iraq.

The events of the last few days are certain to provide plenty of ammunition for the congressional pie-fights that are on the horizon. Republican warmongers will say it proves we can't ever leave, Democrats will say that time is up, we can't sustain it, and should start leaving.

The timing of the violence is also worth noting for another reason. In the wake of the stand-off in Basra that strengthened Sadr's hand, Maliki is under pressure to regain some of the stature he lost in that fiasco. Basra solidified Sadr's bloc as the provincial elections loom, and Maliki faces not just a military draw (which amounts to a win for the side lacking air power) but a political defeat at the hands of the young former video-game junkie. Faced with that reality, Maliki now says militias must disarm. In a statement, the council declared that all political parties must immediately dissolve their militias and surrender their weapons if they wish to take part in elections.

The fighting draws to a close a relatively restive few days in Baghdad. On Sunday morning, an Iraqi military unit rolled into Sadr City supported by an American Stryker squadron, and were met by militia fighters with RPGs.
After the Iraqi soldiers came under attack, American forces in Abrams tanks, Stryker and Bradley fighting vehicles rumbled to the scene. An American helicopter fired at least two Hellfire missiles at militia fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades, and blasted one of their vehicles. Later at least one militia-fired rocket hit the Jamilla market, a heavily frequented part of Sadr City, where clashes left at least 20 people dead, Iraqi officials said.

A large whoosh from a rocket disrupted a briefing in Sadr City for a small group of reporters, prompting correspondents and soldiers to duck. The news conference at the lone American Army and Iraqi combat outpost in Sadr City was given by Gen. Abud Qanbar Hashim, the Iraqi commander for Baghdad, and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey W. Hammond, who leads the American division charged with securing the capital, and began as bursts of gunfire rattled nearby streets.

Hammond seemed to dismiss the rocket as an errant discharge that was intended for the Green Zone.

In recent days, Maliki has issued a series of inconsistent statements in regards to militias and his willingness to take them on. The Iraqi General who was put in charge of the Sadr City operation attempted to assure Sadr's followers that the move was not aimed at any specific group, but at all militias. “The main thing is that arms should be in the hands of the state,” he said. “And we will never allow any armed group to carry arms as an alternative to the state to provide security to the citizens."

Americans have a different tactical objective...they want the rockets and mortars to stop falling on the Green Zone, and are pursuing them to their source. This has them occupying abandoned dwellings and buildings and living in pretty damned primitive conditions as they fend off counterattacks by a well-organized opponent with a command and control structure that is surprising in it's efficacy.
Sgt. Maj. Michael Boom of the First Squadron, Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment, said more than 1,000 American and Iraqi troops were operating in his sector. He said the recent fighting began March 25 when the Americans heard that Iraqi checkpoints were being overrun.

“My soldiers pushed out to help the Iraqi security forces re-establish the checkpoints. In some cases, we actually took over the checkpoints until they could get forces back there,” he said. “My companies have been taking direct fire every day.”

On March 28, the Americans moved to take control of the militia rocket sites to try to blunt the attacks on the Green Zone. The militias responded with a heavy counterattack the next day.

“They obviously wanted to retain that ground and maintain their ability to shoot rockets with impunity,” said Lt. Col. Dan Barnett, the squadron’s commander. “They have a command and control structure. They have a plan in place.”

The fighting spiked as Iraqi forces, backed up by American support, attempted to clear a neighborhood east of the outpost.

Maliki has spent the last week attempting to do damage control after failing to crush the militias in Basra as he had boasted his forces would. The stalemate left him weaker and Sadr stronger. So Maliki spent some of his remaining political capitol and got a decree from the Security COuncil - on which he has a seat - to push a demand that militias disband. The Security Council issued a fifteen point proclamation, one of the points being that all Iraqi's and especially sect leaders, “appreciate the role of the army in imposing security and order in Basra and the rest of the provinces.”
Mahmood Uthman, an independent member of Parliament who is part of the Kurdish Alliance, said he doubted that the Sadr group would go along. Mr. Sadr and his followers, he said, are likely to insist that any call for disarmament be applied to other political parties with militias, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose armed wing is the Badr militia.

Luway Smessem, the head of the Sadr party’s political committee, said that though the group agreed with much of the statement, party officials had “reservations” about some points, including the demands that militias disband and that Mr. Maliki’s Basra campaign be supported.

“The Mahdi Army is not a militia,” he said. “We don’t have masked fighters and everyone knows who we are and who our commanders are.”

The immediate future is tenuous and there is much at stake. And I am extremely nervous because I don't trust any one of the feckless, self-serving jackals that occupy positions of power.

Can it be January now? With enough congressional Democrats taking seats that no matter who wants to retain troops in Iraq, they won't have the funding? Please?

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