A coup d'etat is taking place in Iraq a the moment. Al-Shu'la, Al-Hurria, Thawra (Sadr city), and Kadhimiya (all Shi'ite neighbourhoods in Baghdad) have been declared liberated from occupation. Looting has already started at some places downtown, a friend of mine just returned from Sadun street and he says Al-Mahdi militiamen are breaking stores and clinics open and also at Tahrir square just across the river from the Green Zone. News from other cities in the south indicate that Sadr followers (tens of thousands of them) have taken over IP stations and governorate buildings in Kufa, Nassiriya, Ammara, Kut, and Basrah. Al-Jazeera says that policemen in these cities have sided with the Shia insurgents, which doesn't come as a surprise to me since a large portion of the police forces in these areas were recruited from Shi'ite militias and we have talked about that ages ago. And it looks like this move has been planned a long time ago.
No one knows what is happening in the capital right now. Power has been cut off in my neighbourhood since the afternoon, and I can only hear helicopters, massive explosions, and continuous shooting nearby. The streets are empty, someone told us half an hour ago that Al-Mahdi are trying to take over our neighbourhood and are being met by resistance from Sunni hardliners. Doors are locked, and AK-47's are being loaded and put close by in case they are needed. The phone keeps ringing frantically. Baghdadis are horrified and everyone seems to have made up their mind to stay home tomorrow until the situation is clear.
Before anyone gets too excited, compare the account above to the following CENTCOM briefing. Many of the elements that Zayed mentions -- the thousands of men, the Iraqi police station attacks, the helicopters (they were Apaches) are already in this briefing of April 5, 2004 2:01 p.m. EDT. They correspond to such an extent that there must be some overlap. Having said that, you will note that the briefer is not worried about Fallujah, which he sees as a strategically unimportant burp from deadend Saddamites. He does consider the Shi'ite situation far more worrying.
SR. CENTCOM OFFICIAL: The events of the weekend surrounding Muqtada Sadr are concerning to us. They are Shi'a, and Sadr is a more or less minor cleric within the Shi'a religion. He has been more or less marginalized by most of the Shi'a community, and those that surround it, from both the Ayatollah in Lebanon as well as those that he seeks guidance and help from in Iran. But he does have a very strong following amongst a minor group, probably about 3,000 members of a militia force called the Mahdi Army, that he uses to protect himself and some of his other leaders, and then uses as he sees fit, whether it's establishing the Shiriah (ph) court or protecting a mosque from outside activities. Most of his following, I think, as far as those folks that are not involved with the Mahdi Army, come from those Shi'a members who recall with fondness and with reverence his family name, his father and others that have the Sadr name, at least two grand ayatollahs in the family, and he has a following that directly revolves around that.
This started in An Najaf with a large demonstration that got out of control. We don't think it was initially intended, at least by the demonstrators, to get out of control, but somewhere amidst the crowds that were out there, some snipers started firing at coalition members and it did get out of control.
Ultimately they went to our Joint Coordination Center that was established to work coordination between the police and the Civil Defense Corps and the coalition in preparation for the Arba'in activities that will be going on over the next week, and they also attacked a compound that housed the folks from the Spanish brigade there. The El Salvador quick response team or force counterattacked, and we did lose one El Salvadoran during that effort. But they relieved the pressure on those facilities and ultimately -- I won't say brought calm, but ended the attacks there.
Sadr City in Baghdad was the location, as you know, for several police station takeovers, and we lost several soldiers -- actually, eight -- in retaking those in very violent attacks. And actually, they did a very good job of going back in and restoring some level of order after apparent Mahdi Army folks had gone in and taken over four of the police stations. There were a number of other demonstrations around the country, in An Nasiriyah and a couple of other areas; but all told, probably the number of demonstrators and followers were less than about 10,000. A great deal of violence, mostly committed by an outlaw militia group, the Mahdi Army, and directed by a cleric who, as we see it, is attempting to gain some power, which he has not had up to now, and to gain more influence as we run up to the turnover of sovereignty. ...
As far as the Shi'a activities, I would not even begin to call that an uprising. You know, 60 percent of the population of Iraq is Shi'a, and if you figure the population is 25 million, that puts something in the neighborhood of 15 million or so. And I'm not going to try to do math in public, but certainly the numbers don't suggest even the hint of a Shi'a uprising, even though that's what the papers showed -- or the papers put on their headlines. This is an outlaw group of militia that is taking actions in support of a cleric who is not a particularly powerful Shi'a cleric. And in my view, this is more a power grab at a very difficult time, given that we have Arba'in coming up. And just the fact that we have this coupled with 500,000 to a million pilgrims makes this something of concern to us as far as how we want to respond.
I would say that the Shi'a community was doing a pretty good job of marginalizing Sadr on their own. And so he was walking a pretty thin line without throwing out a whole bunch of rhetoric in our direction. And certainly there are concerns as we deal with the Shi'a community that we try and do it within the rule of law. And so yes, the warrant has been out there and we have been basically trying to help the police and the Civil Defense Corps as they try to locate and determine what action to take down there.
And by the way, it seemed like after his sermons and stuff, after his Friday sermons, his followers were getting smaller and smaller in size. So we weren't -- I won't say concerned with him, but it looked like things were moving in a direction that were good as far as the Shi'a community moving more towards the Sistani view of things, if not pro-coalition or not anti-coalition, certainly in a neutral position. There certainly are concerns about inflaming the Shi'a folks, but I'm not sure that we were that concerned about Sadr doing that because he was starting to get marginalized by them already. And had a target of opportunity come up, we certainly would have grabbed him. He's known that warrant's been out so he has been very quiet -- well, not quiet. He has protected himself very well, and it has been very difficult to follow his moves. And the last thing we want to do is go into a mosque and take significant actions in there. That I do believe would incite Shi'a if we did that during sermons and the like. Although his actions did or his words did go over the line recently, I think, more so than they have in the past, where, without having heard the words or seen the translation, I believe he actually did call for violence against coalition. And that is over the line and that does -- not take the gloves off, but certainly gives us more impetus to go after him and help the Iraqi security sector get him under control and get tried before an Iraqi judge.
Two points. The CENTCOM assessment is that this is centered around Sadr and therefore limited. The alternative is that it is centered around Iran and is the equivalent of the Chinese attacking south over the Yalu to save the Nokors. We will soon know the truth. The second is that these events will curiously rally the Sunnis to the Americans. It will also rally a lot of Shi'ites. Sistani will not stand idly by while Sadr grabs his leadership. The fact that the Iraqi Governing Council (of which Sistani is a part: erratum reader AG points out he is not part of the governing council. List of members here.) has issued a warrant for Sadr's arrest indicates that. They are afraid of what will happen if people like Sadr get loose. Zayed's blog is an insight into their fears, and I can't say they are unjustified.
Having said that, it must be true that Sadr's combat power and that of his Iranian backers, if any, is extremely limited. Any kind of calculation based on available ammunition, mobility, etc. will show this absolutely. They can't sustain this for more than 48 hours and because they have exposed themselves will take terrific casualties because the Coalition will have a free hand in taking them down, something they have avoided for political reasons till now. But now they have a domestic Iraqi mandate. This is Iraq's September 11, if you will.
In earlier blogs, I mentioned the Jihadi penchant for using counterseige tactics. Whenever they are surrounded or under attack, they go off and burn down some town or perpetrate some spectacular slaughter. And here they go again. Same old, same old. These are calculated for media effect. On the ground (if you do your calculation as above) the effect is much, much smaller. These countersiege or diversionary tactics only work when the attacking force is distracted. When the attacking force keeps its cool, these stupid maneuvers are their death warrant. My own take (and it is only an opinion) is that there is no fundamental crisis. Rather, rather there is a fundamental opportunity that has been handed to us as a gift by our enemies. Let's keep cool and make the most of it. Pray for the troops and don't doubt their ability