Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Fallujah Brigade and the Mahdi Army

Plus New! The Thulfiqar Army

Most of today's accounts of events in Fallujah have given the impression of a beaten Marine Corps in retreat, barely pausing to hand over power to a Saddam-era general as it scuttles to safety. This report by the Boston Globe is more subdued than most:

Covering their faces with checkered headscarves, militiamen loyal to a former Iraqi Army general jubilantly took to the streets of this battle-scarred city yesterday to celebrate what they called a triumph over withdrawing US Marines. ... "We won," said one of the militiamen, a former soldier who gave his name only as Abu Abdullah. "We didn’t want the Americans to enter the city and we succeeded."

But as more details emerge on the actual positions being "evacuated" by the Marines and the state of readiness and deployment of the Fallujah Brigade, a somewhat different picture emerges. This press release from the US Marines describes what the former Iraqi Army general will be taking over:

The unit assumed control of four checkpoints April 30 and has started patrolling Fallujah, he said. Yet, until the Iraqi battalion demonstrates a capacity to effectively man designated checkpoints and positions, Marines will continue to maintain a strong presence in and around Fallujah, said Kimmitt during a press briefing April 30. "We have assigned the Iraqi battalion to our least-engaged sector until they can get their feet on deck, absorb the weapons and equipment we are passing their way and prepare for the next phase of the operation," said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the I Marine Expeditionary Force commander.

These limited duties are not surprising, given that the new Iraqi Brigade barely has guns, uniforms or boots.

Motivated by a desire to get the Iraqis supplied as soon as possible, the Marines reduced their usual turnaround time, said CSSG-15's operations officer, Maj. Raphael Hernandez, a 35-year-old native of El Paso, Texas. As soon as the fully loaded helicopters hit the ground here, they were met by trucks from pre-staged convoys, which were immediately loaded and sent rolling to marry up with the battalion.The supplies came in two waves, one containing 13 boxes of AK-47s, which left for Fallujah early in the morning, and another made up of 20 crates of uniforms, boots and miscellaneous combat gear, which left later in the evening.

These initial shipments are only expected to satisfy the battalion's initial needs. For now, the Iraqis are asking for very little, Conway said, even turning down flak jackets and opting for berets over helmets. Some of the soldiers already have their own uniforms, but Marines have shipped them the same garb as the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps wears. In terms of hardware, the battalion is in need of radios and trucks, which has I MEF burning the midnight oil trying to acquire, the general said.

At present, the Fallujah Brigade is more a political force than actual military entity. This was underscored by the hostile reaction of Chalabi, the incoming Defense Minister and the Islamic Party member of the Iraqi Governing Council to its formation. Kurdish Media reports:

While we refuse the endangering of the lives of civilians, we maintain that the return to service of Saddam’s Republican Guard in Fallujah to the military and political arena is a military initiative of the American Marines and has nothing to do with the new Iraqi Army. We do not bear the responsibility.

We stand strongly against this move because it seriously threatens the security and future of Iraq. The command of the brigade and many of its members repressed the people in the uprising of March 1991 and supported Saddam’s regime throughout his dictatorial rule.

Defense Minister Ali Allawi said "The Fallujah Force is not part of the new Iraqi Army. There is no place in the new Iraqi Army for senior officers of Saddam’s Republican Guards or those who have committed crimes against the Iraqi people." We endorse the statement of the Iraqi Defense Minister.

Ahmad Chalabi, INC, Member Governing Council Dr. Sayed Mohammed Bahrululum, Member Governing Council Adel Abdul Mahdi, Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Alternate Member Governing Council

Baghdad May 1, 2004

"A military iniative of the American Marines". Chalabi and Mahdi are worried about this bootless force not so much for what it is, but what it portends. Indeed, they might be forgiven for thinking that the sudden appearance of this Brigade is some kind of American trick, a reminder that Washington too can play the game of divide and conquer by dealing directly with local political figures and arming factions independent of the new Iraqi Army. The process being used to settle the parallel problem of Sadr's Mahdi Army is an eerily similar combination of force and political negotiation. The Associated Press reports:

Najaf's police chief, Ali al-Yasser, was seeking to meet U.S. officials Sunday to present a five-point proposal, the mediators said. But the top coalition official in Najaf, Phil Kosnett, insisted al-Sadr must "face justice" and said there were no plans for a Sunday meeting. "The coalition is not negotiating with anyone on any five-point plan," he said, though the coalition "meets with local officials every day to discuss the situation."

The plan, put together by tribal leaders after talks with the Najaf police chief, calls for the al-Mahdi Army to leave Najaf and for al-Sadr not to be jailed on a murder charge until a new government is formed, according to Hakem al-Shibli, a tribal leader and member of the negotiating team. He said Najaf's tribes would reject any American demand to arrest al-Sadr, who is wanted for alleged involvement in the slaying of a rival cleric last year. "If the Americans insist on it, despite the compromises that Seyed Muqtada has made, it would not be just," al-Shibli said.

The mediators — made up of tribesmen and a former judge — received the blessing of the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior and influential Shiite cleric, al-Shibli said. However, an al-Sadr spokesman who met with the mediators Saturday, Sheik Qais al-Khazali, was less optimistic, saying all other efforts to end the standoff had failed because of Americans. He said that if the Americans rejected a peaceful settlement, the al-Mahdi Army would fight. ...

Hundreds of U.S. troops are deployed outside the Najaf-Kufa area, and a contingent has moved into a base within the city, about five kilometers (three miles) from sensitive holy sites at the heart of Najaf. The Americans have clashed occasionally with al-Sadr followers outside Najaf. The U.S. military moved to capture al-Sadr after his militia staged an uprising across the south, sparked by the arrest of one of his aides. That uprising has died down, but his militiamen still dominate Najaf, Kufa and Karbala, the three holiest Shiite cities in Iraq.

Here too we see the chessboard-like moves of military units while the coalition "meets with local officials every day" without "negotiating with anyone on any five-point plan". Little wonder that Chalabi and Abdul Mahdi are so nervous. Sadr should be too.

The "Thulfiqar" Army

Hat tip: Salon. The Scotsman reports that a mysterious and shadowy militia is killing Moqtada Al-Sadr's men, one by one.

FOR the past month they have been the rude young pretenders, a rag-tag slum army ruffling the quiet dignity of Iraq’s holiest city. For every day that the United States army fails to act on its threat to crush them, the Shiite militiamen of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have grown in confidence in their stronghold in Najaf.

Now, however, a shadowy resistance movement within might be about to succeed where the 2,500 US marines outside the city have failed. In a deadly expression of feelings that until now were kept quiet, a group representing local residents is said to have killed at least five militiamen in the last four days. The murders are the first sign of organised Iraqi opposition to Sadr’s presence and come amid simmering discontent at the havoc their lawless presence has wreaked.

The group calls itself the Thulfiqar Army, after a twin-bladed sword said to be used by the Shiite martyr Imam Ali, to whom Najaf’s vast central mosque is dedicated. Residents say leaflets bearing that name have been circulated in the city in the last week, urging Sadr’s al-Mahdi army to leave immediately or face imminent death. "I haven’t seen the leaflets myself, but I heard about it when I was down there two days ago," said Ahmed Abbas, a carpenter from Najaf who visited Baghdad yesterday. "It has got some of the Mahdi guys quite worried, I tell you. They are banding together more, when normally you would see them happily walking on the streets alone. I think their commanders have ordered them to do that."

As is the case with most fledgling resistance groups, further details are sketchy. Nobody knows yet who is really behind the group, if the deaths of Mahdi men are its handiwork or, indeed, if it really exists. Questioned about it at a Baghdad press conference on Tuesday, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt would say only: "I am not aware of its existence, although we have had some reports of that nature from the city."