Saturday, August 14, 2004

Hostilities resume in Najaf: what happens next?

Reuters reports that talks between Sadr and the Iraqi government have collapsed. The communique is self-explanatory.

Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told a news conference in Najaf that the embattled U.S.-backed interim government had given up trying to reach a deal with radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army in the southern city. "It is with deep sorrow and regret that I announce the failure of efforts to end the crisis in Iraq peacefully. Our goal was to spare more blood, preserve security and for the militias to lay down their arms," Rubaie said. "The Iraqi interim government is resuming military clearing operations to ... establish law and order in this holy city."

What happens next is that Sadr dies or is captured, together with such of his men as follow his lead. The Belmont Club had earlier offered an analysis of Sadr's negotiating position and concluded it was the bargaining strategy from hell. Sadr wanted to paint Allawie into a corner never reckoning that the Iraqi government could walk through the flimsy wall he sought to imprison them in.

It is what must not happen next that matters. The tactical problem facing coalition commanders is how to kill or capture Sadr's forces with Iraqi personnel while avoiding unnecessary deaths and damage to the Shrine. That rules out the textbook solution of leveling it with fires. Because of the subdivided interior of buildings and the fact that Sadr may have wired the Shrine with demolitions a direct assault will probably be excluded for the present. The problem with an assault is that once friendly forces are in contact, one is bound to support them and that imperative will compel the scene commander to order the fires he sought to avoid in the first place. Besieging forces have traditionally used time to weaken resistance without applying direct force. In this case time can also work against the investing forces because Sadr will attempt to run countersiege operations by organizing marches and cavalcades by his supporters to Najaf. Given enough time, he probably reckons that the international media and possibly the United Nations will ride to his rescue. (Heritage site, blah-blah).

Without knowing what the operational commanders will do next, one can still surmise that they will attempt to compress the effects of time by applying unrelenting pressure on the garrison using disturbances, sniping and probes. They would be justified in using nonlethal agents such as CS (tear gas) to stir the pot. Things may still go wrong. Janet Reno's assault on Waco resulted in starting an accidental conflagration that turned the Koresh compound into a charnel house. What is important is to avoid building up the pressure to a climax, to avoid precipitating a self-inflicted Gotterdammerung by Sadr. I suppose one could set up loudspeakers and blast out Koranic verses at levels the EPA would rule illegal, etc. The whole idea is to make a day into an eternity until the days all run together in a jumble.

I once wrote to a reader that I hated the Pied Pipers that led simple and ignorant people down the road to destruction. These photos showing Sadr's "fighters" brought it home. Twisted ammo belts, mismatched calibers, museum piece M1919 machineguns, rifles with a but a single magazine, no tactical comms. How could he? How could he? Damn you Sadr.


This piece from the Newsweek is precisely the sort of reportage that will cost Iraqi lives -- mostly insurgent lives -- down the track. I wrote above that I hated the Svengalis who lured the credulous into military death traps.

Inside the sprawling slum of Sadr City, members of the Mahdi Army were itching for a battle, and already feeling like victors. Never mind that raw sewage ran down the gutters, giving an overpowering stench in the 115-degree heat. Well-organized groups of militiamen stood guard, guns at the ready in case Coalition forces appeared. Around the corner from the One-Eyed Woman's Market, an outdoor emporium largely abandoned because of recent fighting, fighters cruised around, waving AK-47s and shouting taunts urging Americans to come and get them.

Traps had been laid. A NEWSWEEK correspondent watched as other fighters brazenly planted more than a dozen hidden bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). First they set fires inside tires lying in the street, which melted the macadam underneath. Then they sank the IEDs into the molten asphalt and let them cool. Within hours, there was no sign of the devices, which could be detonated with the remote control of a car alarm whenever Coalition vehicles passed by. "The U.S. can't go any further," said one Mahdi Army commander, Sheik Amar, 28. "Even the helicopters aren't flying overhead." Allawi flexed his muscles, but in Sadr City and many cities and neighborhoods like it, insurgents and thugs still ruled the streets.

"Well-organized groups of militiamen", we are told, who are employing the professional tactics of cruising around, "waving AK-47s and shouting taunts urging Americans to come and get them". It's a trap. Get it? A trap. The fact that no American vehicles drive over this clever minefield is ascribed, not to the basic common sense one would find in a goat, but to fear. "'The U.S. can't go any further,' said one Mahdi Army commander. 'Even the helicopters aren't flying overhead.'" Lest they fly over IEDs buried in asphalt.

Newspaper articles have long described how US troops are routinely taught to watch for IEDs molded into concrete curbs, flowerpots or other objects, so of course they will miss IEDs melted into asphalt. EW aircraft routinely sweep ahead of US convoys jamming IED frequencies of precisely the sort used by garage openers, cell phones and other commercial remote controllers. Why would they be effective against car remotes? It is a basic adage never to underestimate the enemy. US soldiers are repeatedly told their enemy is cunning and ruthless. But the press has the habit of informing the world that American soldiers are as dumb as a box of rocks. And the enemy dies by the hundreds and thousands when he believes this. Pitifully, needlessly and tragically. Those IEDs that have been melted into the asphalt will kill and maim Iraqi civilians by the gross. Because commercially available remote control devices are, well, used commercially. And those Madhi Army fighters who "ruled the streets" will be deader than doornails when they run into trained troops. Dead.