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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Victory in Baghdad II

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Now with pretty colors, courtesy of the Washington Post, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, and the Mahdi Army.

 

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Another superb story from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad about the Sunni militias (“concerned citizens”) who have been the linchpin of American tactical success in Iraq.

A senior Sunni sheikh, whose tribe is joining the new alliance with the Americans against al-Qaida, told me in Beirut that it was a simple equation for him. “It’s just a way to get arms, and to be a legalised security force to be able to stand against Shia militias and to prevent the Iraqi army and police from entering their areas,” he said.

“The Americans lost hope with an Iraqi government that is both sectarian and dominated by militias, so they are paying for locals to fight al-Qaida. It will create a series of warlords.

“It’s like someone who brought cats to fight rats, found himself with too many cats and brought dogs to fight the cats. Now they need elephants.”

The Americans pay him $400 (£200) a month for each fighter he provides, he said, and he had 600 registered. His men are awed by his courage, his piety and his neurotic rages.

Like many other insurgent groups, the Islamic Army had an uneasy alliance with al-Qaida. On one hand they needed financial support; on the other, al-Qaida became a burden, bringing upon the Sunnis the wrath of Shia militias and death squads who started an organised campaign of sectarian cleansing against the Sunnis in retaliation against al-Qaida’s mass killing of Shia.

“We lost our area,” Abu Abed said. “It became a battle zone between al-Qaeda and the Shia militias.”

So when a prominent Iraqi Sunni politician who had lived in the US returned to Iraq last year and started direct talks between the Islamic Army commanders from his tribe and the Americans, Abu Abed was prepared to listen. “A year ago we reached the decision that we needed to fight al-Qaida,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t fight them face to face – they had more men and weapons. So I started gathering intelligence on their commanders. I knew them all very well.”

The turning point came last year, when al-Qaida declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and attempted to impose itself on other insurgent groups. In one instance in west Baghdad, they demanded 25% of all the loot from other insurgent groups’ operations. The Islamic Army refused to pay and direct confrontations ensued.

“The bodies piled up in the streets,” Abu Abed said. “Most of the people had to leave the area and flee.”

The Hajji and his men used the same techniques they mastered as insurgents against their former allies. Sitting on a big sofa in his office, he recounted the events. “When we decided to attack we started with assassinations. We killed six [al-Qaida] commanders in the first week of fighting,” he said. “We would drive in unmarked cars, shoot a commander dead and then flee. At first, no one knew who was killing them.”

Soon an open war started. Of the hundreds who pledged to fight al-Qaida, only 13 actually stuck with Abu Abed. These days, almost all his followers claim to have been one of the 13. “When the Americans intervened, we went out with them on missions, leading them to the Qaida fighters,” he said.

After we had settled again in his office, Abu Abed told me of his grand dreams. “Ameriya is just the beginning. After we finish with al-Qaida here, we will turn toward our main enemy, the Shia militias. I will liberate Jihad [a Sunni area next to Ameriya taken over by the Mahdi army] then Saidiya and the whole of west Baghdad.”

Hours later the Ameriya Knights were on the streets again. There were rumours that Iraq’s Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, was visiting Ameriya for the first time in two years. As we approached the mosque where he was believed to be praying, the street was blocked by his guards.

“Open the road for the Ameriya Knights,” yelled one of Abu Abed’s men.

“I can’t, I don’t have orders,” replied a gunman. “Do you know who I am? I am the commander of Ameriya,” Abu Abed screamed at the vice-president’s commander of guards. “Who are you? Did you dare to show your faces here before I kicked al-Qaida out? Even the Americans with their tanks couldn’t come before I liberated Ameriya.” Bakr pointed his gun at the entourage. Guns were cocked on all sides.

“Abu Abed, we all know who you are, but this is the vice-president of Iraq.”

This is Ameriya, not Iraq! Here I rule, I am the commander, I can make sure that you won’t show your faces here!

“We are all Sunni brothers. The Shia militias will be happy to see us fighting; we have the same enemy,” said the man.

“You are trying to claim my victory. I will show you!” Abu Abed pushed the officer and went back to his car.

The fragmentation of Iraq was going on before General Petraeus, the surge, or any fancy new COIN strategies were implemented. This story could just as well have taken place in Kirkuk in 2004. It just feels a bit odd to be helping it occur, knowing that it is diametrically opposed to our broader strategic goal of a unified Iraqi nation under a single ruling authority.

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Victory in Baghdad

Pic: Iraqi Ministry of the Interior commando stands side-by-side with a member of the Mahdi Army.

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Just not exactly how we planned it.

“I don’t think this place is worth another American soldier’s life.” – Washington Post, 27 Oct. Despite the decrease in violence, the cleansing of the Sunnis of Sadiyah has been completed and not reversed, and the area is dead. The victory of the Shi’i in Baghdad, in other words.

“When we first got here, all the shops were open. There were women and children walking out on the street,” Alarcon said this week. “The women were in Western clothing. It was our favorite street to go down because of all the hot chicks.”

American soldiers estimate that since violence intensified this year, half of the families in Sadiyah have fled, leaving approximately 100,000 people. After they left, insurgents and militiamen used their abandoned homes to hold meetings and store weapons. The neighborhood deteriorated so quickly that many residents came to believe neither U.S. nor Iraqi security forces could stop it happening.

The descent of Sadiyah followed a now-familiar pattern in Baghdad. In response to suicide bombings blamed on Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army, went from house to house killing and intimidating Sunni families. In many formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, such as al-Amil and Bayaa, Shiites have become the dominant sect, with their militias the most powerful force.

“It’s just a slow, somewhat government-supported sectarian cleansing,” said Maj. Eric Timmerman, the battalion’s operations officer.

….

Over time, the neighborhood became a battleground that residents fled by the thousands. Hundreds of shops shut down, schools closed, and access to basic services such as electricity, fuel and food deteriorated. “The end state was people left. They felt unsafe,” said Timmerman, the operations officer.

“We were so committed to them as a partner we couldn’t see it for what it was. In retrospect, I’ve got to think it was a coordinated effort,” Timmerman said. “To this day, I don’t think we truly understand how infiltrated or complicit the national police are” with the militias.

The Iraqi army’s arrival and the emergence of the Sunni volunteers have coincided with some positive signs, the soldiers said. Some of the shops along the once-busy commercial district of Tijari Street now open for a few hours a day. The number of violent incidents has dropped, although it rose again over the past two weeks, officers said.

“This is a dangerous place,” said Capt. Lee Showman, 28, a senior officer in the battalion. “People are killed here every day, and you don’t hear about it. People are kidnapped here every day, and you don’t hear about it.”

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Red on red

AQI suicide bomber attacks 1920 Revolution Brigades HQ in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad.

Islamic Army in Iraq battles AQI in Salahuddin Province, 16 killed.

If anything will eventually end the Sunni insurgency, this is it.

One wonders, however, if there will really be anything left of Iraq once it’s over. We have already seen massive social change since 2003, equivalent to one or more “revolutions” from the old Iraq:

  • Rise of the Shi’i religious parties in the south and center – SCIRI/ISCI/SIIC, the Sadrist Current, regional parties like Fadhila in Basra
  • Fall of the old Ba’athist order and fragmentation in the Sunni areas
  • Sectarian cleansing of Baghdad and the flight of the middle class
  • Kurdish near-independence

However things end for the United States, these broad social changes will continue to play out to unknown ends in Iraq for years to come.

A check of my fearless predictions from May shows that my all-seeing eye wasn’t too cockeyed. Fadhila is still holding on by its fingernails in Basra, though.

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Pic: “Hi! We’re forming a new political party! Please consider us in the upcoming provincial elections.”

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James Janega of the Chicago Tribune snagged an interview with a purported Sunni insurgent leader, identified as Anbari but whose primary influence appears to be in the Sunni enclaves of Ameriya and Abu Ghraib in Baghdad.

 The leader of the Anbar-based resistance group Army of Truth — a former Iraqi army officer who uses the nom de guerre Abu Ali al-Baghdadi — said he has met with U.S. and Iraqi officials and expressed hope that former insurgents would have a role in the country’s future.

In a two-hour interview in Baghdad, al-Baghdadi said some insurgent groups have united against Al Qaeda and have joined the Sunni tribal forces fighting them. He said his group had “frozen” its insurgent operations but said the moves fall short of an alliance with U.S. interests and the Iraqi government.

“We are in a test period for the Americans. This is only temporary. We are now investigating the sincerity of American intentions,” especially regarding plans to remove troops from the country, al-Baghdadi said. “If the Americans continue delaying, perhaps the groups will go back to their operations.”

Because of the tribal-led security movement, Sunni insurgents are sprinkled throughout police and security forces in Iraq, al-Baghdadi said. Most are seeking a road into Iraq’s political future.

Still, al-Baghdadi said, many of their members may support calls for provincial and national elections, on the assumption that group leaders, or those sympathetic to them, would gain seats in government.

Most oppose the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and seek government reforms, and nearly all want the Americans to set a timetable to leave Iraq, he said.

“For now, the resistance has become as unified as it is going to be. Most of the resistance now agrees on one program.

“If this program is achieved with dialogue with the Americans, we might have a role in leadership through the next elections,” al-Baghdadi said. “But we cannot share this government while occupiers remain in Iraq.”

Al-Baghdadi said he has helped the Iraqi government and U.S. forces open channels of communication with insurgent leaders in the restive Sunni towns of Abu Ghraib and Ameriyah.

If true, that would mark a shift in the insurgent groups’ stance from active opposition to tentative engagement.

“We decided to change our strategy and deal with the reality on the ground. Most of the groups decided to limit their operations,” al-Baghdadi said. “When we changed our strategy, we began to believe in dialogue.”

This ties well into the movement by various Sunni groups to form a genuine political faction to prepare for a post-American Iraq. A potentially major step in this movement took place recently with the formation of the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, uniting the Reform and Jihad Front (itself an insurgent supergroup dominated by the Islamic Army in Iraq), Hamas-Iraq, and the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance behind a common political program.

Things to be concerned about: as Lynch points out, the Sunnis still have quite unrealistic political demands, including the voiding of the Iraqi constitution and apparently all laws currently in place in Iraq. There is no reason why the Shi’i religious parties will even begin to consider these talking points, and indeed the Sunni demands show that the Iraqi insurgents still view the government as essentially illegitimate in turn. But at the least it shows that even the Sunni insurgency understands that a military solution is not in the offing.

Snarky caption concept blatantly ripped off from Afghanistanica.

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PMCs in Iraq

Pic: “We’re from the private sector, and we’re here to help.”

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I don’t think anyone who knows what they’re talking about can claim that the U.S. military can go to war without private contractors, anymore than the U.S. intelligence community can conduct operations without private contractors (how could I forget R. J. Hillhouse, who has been the go-to gal on this trend for a long time). This trend did not begin under Bush, and is the direct result of the downsizing of the active force since the end of the Cold War with no corresponding decrease in the tasks that force is asked to accomplish.

That being said, anyone who knows anyone within the contractor community also knows that every company employs several, maybe many employees who should not be anywhere near a combat environment. This goes for most military units as well, but at least American military personnel are under the UCMJ and certainly under the control of their NCOs and chain of command — not “big boy rules” as the contractors say, which frankly don’t cut it when some of the boys playing never grew up. Hannah Allam is worth reading on this.

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