Having passed the tragic milestone of 4,000 Americans killed, world focus is once again, on the war in Iraq. Baghdad’s fortified “Green Zone” came under repeated rocket and mortar attack last month, with up to 17 people killed by rockets falling short of the government and diplomatic compound. Following soon after, factions of the Mehdi Army, led by the notorious anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, attacked checkpoints throughout the city of Kut, 150km southeast of Baghdad. It was a first outbreak in violence, by al-Sadr’s forces, following the break in a six months unilateral truce, declared by the Shi’ite leader.
All this was the harbinger of Sadr’s next move, his real objective- Basrah. The crisis began when Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched a military offensive supposedly aimed at crushing gangs and armed militias in Basra. The move, quicky inflamed violence in the city and threatens to destabilise the already highly tense situation all over Iraq.
In and around Basrah city, two powerful factions of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, are fighting for power in the city along with a smaller Shi’ite party, Fadhila. The Sadr loyalists are widely regarded as the most influential group on the streets of Basrah, his political movement and Mehdi Army militia seem to have considerable popular support. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) also has a strong following in Basra and, like the Sadrists, has built up powerful support by running charities to help the poor. The party, engaged in a power struggle with Sadr’s followers across much of the south, but had joined Sadr in opposing the governor of Basrah, who belongs to the smaller Shi’ite Fadhila Party.
The SIIC favours the creation of a large federal region with wide autonomy that would include the nine southern mainly Shi’ite provinces, which Muqatada al-Sadr vehemently opposes. As for PM al-Maliki’s forces, these number over some 30,000 soldiers and police to keep the peace in Basra. They are commanded by army Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji and police chief Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, both of whom were appointed in June as part of the central government’s plan to combat militia influence.
After their withdrawal from Basrah city, last September, British forces numbering about around 4,00 troops are still based in a fortified encampment at Basra air base just outside the city, but rarely venture outside, apart from routine security patrolling. In fact, the British government hoped to draw down at least half of the troops left in Iraq and possibly pull out the entire force by the end of the year, but those prospects are looking less likely because of the renewed violence. There is little doubt that Basrah has become a special case in the Iraqi power struggle. Since the American-led invasion, in spring 2003, it had been under the protection of the British Army, which preferred a strategy of virtually laissez faire to the militias, as long as left in relative peace. Thus the continued power struggle in the city – Iraq’s main port – differed sharply from that in the other Shiite areas. Basra was essentially divided up among Shiite warlords, each of which had its own form of extortion and corruption. Fighting each other in brutal feud, criminal gangs had established a crude modus vivendi in the city, which escalated sharply as the Brits left.
But there is more. Basrah, due to its geographical neighbourhood to Iran, makes it highly lucrative for the influence of Iran, which has for generations eyed its oil as a major strategic objective, especially the large refineries, which Iran itself is lacking. Thus, Iran’s religious paramilitary force, Al Quds, has been an equal-opportunity supplier of weapons and money to all the Shiite militias, effectively ensuring that it will support the winner, regardless of who the winner turns out to be. There are good reasons for the central government and the US military to reassert control of Basrah. Being not only the key to Iraq’s oil exports, the city and it’s environment sits across the main logistical landline ensuring vital supplies for US forces in Baghdad as well as the only land axis for an eventual withdrawal, when ordered. With Iran only a “stone throw” away to the east, over the Shat-al Arab waterway, Basrah, under hostile control could become a dangerous strategic bottleneck for the US Army.
Still, viewing the larger picture in Iraq, the fighting in Basrah is probably an ugly prelude of what will ensue if the next U.S. president decides to pull U.S. troops out of Baghdad prematurely – a collapse of weak governmental institutions, with Iraqi factions fighting one another once foreign forces no longer separate them. Indeed, the looming power struggle has shifted focus from another brutal actor inside Iraq- al Qaeda, which may be making a comeback, to re-establish its own powerplay in the Iraq fiasco. Analysts warn that al Qaeda, which is believed to be behind some of last month’s brutal attacks, may be shifting tactics to it’s former headline grabbing warfare, which could lead to renewed inter-ethnic civil war in Iraq. “We have some indicators that they may be planning on executing a kind of a large media type event”, said Major-General John Kelly, commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force in Western Iraq.
Putting the squeeze on al-Qaeda in Iraq was a primary objective of the revised U.S. military “surge” strategy that Gen. David Petraeus inherited when he became the top commander in Baghdad 13 months ago. The goal – largely achieved -was to minimise the group’s ability to inflame sectarian violence, which at the time was so intense that some characterised Iraq as trapped in a civil war. The militants are weakened, battered, perhaps even desperate, by most U.S. accounts. But far from being “routed,” as Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed , they’re still there, still deadly active and likely to remain far into the future, military and other officials told the Associated Press. It seems that Osama bin Laden’s men are proving they can survive even the most suffocating U.S. military pressure.
Counter insurgency experts believe that al-Qaeda in Iraq’s change in tactics comes in response to the turmoil and self-doubt that arose among its members as they lost the support of Sunni tribesmen, a process vividly described in a letter by an unnamed Iraqi al-Qaeda emir, that the U.S. military said it seized during search operations, last November. The letter, which referred to the situation in Al Anbar as an “exceptional crisis,” was found in an al-Qaeda safe house in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, along with a half-dozen CDs and DVDs of secret material from the group. The authenticity of the document could not be independently confirmed. “We found ourselves in a circle not being able to move, organize or conduct our operations,” the letter lamented: “There was a total collapse in the security structure of the organization.” But since, it seems, that Iraq’s al Qaeda leaders have found ways to redress some of their capabilities within a changed tactical faculties.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which practically did not exist as a coherent group before U.S. troops invaded Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003, probably now numbers no more than 6,000, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. It may have been closer to 10,000-strong before the severe pummeling it took last year, when it lost its main bases of Sunni Arab support. It now controls no cities, but is reportedly, still very active in pockets through much of central and northern Iraq.
But impressive resilience has been the hallmark of al-Qaeda in Iraq, since its leader, the notorious Jordanian born arch- terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, leader of the global al-Qaeda network, in October 2004. It has survived innumerable reverses in recent years, including al-Zarqawi’s death in a June 2006 U.S. airstrike. His immediate successor became Abu Ayub al-Masri, an Egyptian who, while keeping a lower public profile, for his own safety, did not rise to Zarqawi’s expertise, but nevertheless, until the US “Surge” operations in Al Anbar, kept al Qaeda’s terrorist activities intact.
According to recent intelligence updates, the group’s other leadership figures also are still foreigners from Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Morocco and Libya. Two US defense officials who discussed details of the organization on condition of anonymity, regard the rank-and-file membership of Iraq’s al Qaeda as being largely domestic.
Only three months ago, as the US troop surge in Iraq approached its one-year anniversary, the commander of Multinational Force Iraq said he was encouraged by successes his troops made with the built momentum, but cautioned that the Army’s job was by far from over. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told the Pentagon Channel the new strategy in Iraq — with more coalition and Iraqi troops helping quell violence in and around Baghdad and operations that promote closer cooperation with the Iraqi population — has helped stabilise once-violent areas. But Gen. Petraeus was also quick to warn that the fight has not been won yet. He said that al Qaeda continued to be public enemy No. 1 in Iraq, and although most of its forces may have been flushed out of Baghdad and Anbar province, they remain “very potent in other places around Iraq” General Petraeus said. “Let’s not forget that al Qaeda in Iraq is still intent on reigniting ethno-sectarian violence, on carrying out acts of horrific violence, of damaging the infrastructure and killing innocent Iraqis and going after us.” Now, with the recent upsurge in violence, it seems clearly that the general’s assessment has certainly proven itself not at all premature.
American military advisers are teaching the Iraqi troops everything from physical fitness to urban warfare tactics, and mentor their officers in leadership and mission planning. But whether all this effort will shape an efffective fighting force, capable to maintain security in a divided and highly suspicious population, on its own remains highly questionable. Freeing the US Army to withdraw, without leaving total chaos behind, seems, at best, wishful thinking to anyone well versed in Middle East affairs. In fact, culminating the ridiculous, President Bush, most astonishingly, had this to say only last March : “Normalcy is returning back to Iraq!” Is it really?