Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Slim Pickings

The lesser theater

Very little information on Fallujah to go on now with the news clampdown. Four Marines died in Anbar province, in which Fallujah is located, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. At 11:12 Zulu, Reuters reported "fighting" in the industrial part of the city,  possibly in the southeastern corner of the map near the quarries. The aerial photo map shows an area of distinctly larger compounds in that vicinity.

Falluja, Iraq - Heavy fighting erupted between U.S. troops and Iraqi guerrillas on the edge of Falluja, an anti-American hotbed west of Baghdad. Witnesses on rooftops said they could see clashes on the highway just north of Falluja, with explosions and heavy gunfire echoing across the town. Fighting was also reported in the industrial area of the city.

This account if true could indicate fighting on opposite sides (north and south) of the city and possibly a Marine penetration nearly as far as Highway 10, the main road which runs East-West through the city. But reports are so sketchy that it is hard to say.


Yahoo News (Hat tip: Freerepublic) has more details:

The bulk of the coalition force has remained on Fallujah's edge, apparently held at bay by tough resistance from anti-American fighters against Marine forays probing the outskirts ...  In Fallujah, explosions and gunfire were heard from the city through the night Monday and into Tuesday morning, apparently U.S. troops shelling targets and clashing with guerrillas as Marines probed the outskirts with reconnaissance patrols. A force of Marines pushed into an eastern neighborhood, clashing with guerrillas Tuesday. Gunmen carrying automatic weapons were seen in the streets. Guerrilla fire set one vehicle ablaze, said a witness, Issam Mahmoud, who said a soldier inside was killed. There was no immediate confirmation of the death. Troops broke into houses in the neighborhood, carrying out searches, and entered a mosque, witnesses said. U.S. troops waiting on the northern edge of Fallujah for orders to move in came under fire from nearby houses Tuesday, wounding two Marines. Tanks and Humvees moved into the neighborhood where the fire came from, and the sound of tank fire was later heard. The military reported six Iraqis killed in fighting Monday, saying all were guerrillas, though residents said five of them were killed when helicopters hit a residential area. In the nearby city of Ramadi, another hotbed of guerrilla activity 24 miles west of Fallujah, U.S. troops and insurgents clashed on a downtown street. One Iraqi was killed and three wounded, doctors said.

Compare this account with the earlier Belmont Club projections, here and here, which seem to be holding up pretty well in general outline. It is unlikely the Marines are being "held at bay". They are deliberately infiltrating the town and whipsawing the defenders back and forth. The Belmont Club projections seem to be off in two respects. First, the Marines are moving at a far faster tempo than predicted. Also, they seem less impeded by civilians and don't seem to need to process them out of the way. It appears they are looking through specific places without having to do a block by block search, perhaps because they have better intel. Second, the Marines are operating over a far wider area than Fallujah. They seem to be raiding throughout the environs, perhaps using the mini-raid method discussed in Operation Mountain Storm. Mobility and networked resources allow them to create a "virtually everywhere" type of combat presence.

The Main Show: Sadr and the Shi'ites

The New York Times is reporting that Moktada Al-Sadr has barricaded himself inside the most symbolic site  in Shi'ite Islam: the Golden Mosque.

KUFA, Iraq, April 5 — The Grand Mosque of Kufa has now become the grand arsenal. On Monday, as American authorities issued an arrest warrant for Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who set off the most serious insurrection so far against the occupation forces, hundreds of his supporters were busy fortifying the mosque here with heavy weapons, bracing for an American invasion.

Mr. Sadr has barricaded himself inside the golden brick walls, refusing to surrender. His militia is prowling the streets, staring down the sights of machine guns, building fighting positions in and around the mosque, the town's biggest, and pointing rocket-propelled grenades at the highway heading north — the road they expect to see American forces come rumbling down.

"The only way the Americans will enter this city is entering over our bodies," said Sheik Abu Mahdi al-Rubayee, a commander in Mr. Sadr's private army, estimated to number in the tens of thousands. "If they come for our leader, they will ignite all of Iraq."

If Sadr died in Kufa's Golden Mosque, it would be ironic. He was reported to have murdered one of his rivals, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim in the very same place nearly a year ago to this day

It was probably the followers of this fiery young leader who murdered his religious adversary, who arrived in Iraq from London on April 10th. Al-Khoei, a friend of America, was ambushed at the golden mosque and hacked to death with knives. Muktada al-Sadr denies having ordered the murder, claiming that an "agitated mob" was responsible. From his headquarters on the street leading to the market, al-Sadr constantly watches the shrine, waiting, drinking tea, scheming.

But that is probably his ambition. Nearly all the holy men of Shi'ite Islam have died in Kufa, most notably its very founder, Ali. Having sought refuge there after a power struggle to lead Islam, he was stabbed to death on the site of the Golden Mosque. The eerily prophetic Der Spiegel article describes the mental landscape of Kufa and the Shi'ites.

No other religion is so enmeshed in its cult of martyrdom. The Shiites believe that all of their imams after Ali died a sacrificial death. A small minority only acknowledges seven imams (like the Ismailites), while most consider themselves part of the twelve imam Shia. The twelfth in the sequence of their leaders is said to have suffered an unusual fate. Little Mohammed, born in 869, was hidden by his father and then disappeared. Most Shiites believe that the "hidden imam," or "Mahdi," will reappear one day and will take the helm of the party of Ali to claim the legitimate rights of its ancestors and lead his followers into paradise.

By issuing an arrest warrant on Sadr, the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Authority are participating, albeit unwillingly and indirectly, in a deep power struggle for the leadership of Shi'ite Islam itself. By ensconcing himself in the Golden Temple, Sadr is betting that an American assault on Islam's holiest place, so evocative of the martyrdom of the founding Ali will light a fuse that will ignite the Shi'a along a belt sweeping up from southern Iraq to Iran.

It is understandable that America preferred to see Sadr marginalized by his theocratic rivals instead of moving against him directly. They had possibly hoped that bottling the Shi'ite "clerics" in their holy cities would give them ample opportunity to knife each other, a talent they so richly display. But Sadr, like Osama before him, cunningly saw that the pre-eminence he would be denied in the natural course might be obtained by provoking an American reaction -- a deus ex machina -- to anoint himself the Mahdi of the age. Certain sects in Islam, like the Left, find America an indispensable tool to living out their sick fantasies.

If the operation against Fallujah is tricky, serving the warrant of arrest on Sadr will be doubly so. He is surrounded by hundreds of retainers, many trained by the Hezbollah in Lebanon, oozing hatred and fanaticism from every pore. The US is caught between waiting him out, so that the press can tout the pitiful weakness the America or putting a 2,000 pound JDAM through the Golden Mosque's roof with the warrant of arrest attached, so the press can decry how brutally strong America is. The sheer numbers of Sadr's bodyguards means there is no plausible method of finessing it.

It might be possible for Iraqis themselves to assault the Mosque. That would take the shine off Sadr's planned martyrdom, but it is by no means sure that the nascent Iraqi security forces could pull it off. Moreover, any American police adviser would be properly outraged at sacrificing his men in a frontal attack when supporting fires are available. No Iraqi should die simply to avoid a headline in the New York Times.

There might be a way of besieging Sadr in a manner that makes him look ridiculous rather than noble, some brilliant psyops ploy, but I do not know it. It might also be possible to shift the drama elsewhere so Sadr is left high, dry and forgotten. But absent these, it will come down to letting him play out his sophomoric part on the world stage or giving this scoundrel and his thugs their just deserts. Which course prevails will ultimately be determined by political, rather than purely military considerations.


Sadr blinks! He wants to live, probably betting that he will get a prison term (capital punishment is abolished in Iraq) he can emerge from with his reputation enhanced to claim his just reward. He is still in his 30s.

BAGHDAD, April 6 (Xinhuanet) -- Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr,wanted by coalition forces in Iraq, ended his sit-in at a mosque in Kufa Tuesday and travelled to the holy city of Najaf to prevent more bloodshed. "I have taken it upon myself to prevent more bloodshed except mine," he said in a statement, expressing his concern that the US troops may violate the sacred site of Al Kufa mosque. Sadr said he took his decision to "observe a peaceful sit-in" at the mosque of Al Kufa to protest against "the aggressions committed by the infidel occupier against civilians". An arrest warrant has been issued last year for Sadr for the murder of a rival cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, just days after thefall of Saddam's regime. Thousands of his supporters gathered in the mosque and vowed to defend him to the death after US civil administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer declared Sadr an outlaw on Monday.

This is interesting because Sadr must have been convinced in his heart that the Americans would not stick at putting a JDAM through the roof. The decimation of his men may have convinced him that the US was playing for keeps. No wonder the Arab League won't even meet. It's getting hard to sit on a fence in the Middle East.