Raising the Mahdi Army

A. Scott Piraino

A year ago this month President Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier beneath a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”, and officially declared an end to the War in Iraq. Recent events have made a mockery of that pronouncement. 138 U.S. soldiers were killed and nearly 1200 Iraqis died in Iraq this April, making last month the bloodiest since the war began over a year ago.

In April, US forces were fighting a two front war. The Marines were hard pressed in Fallujah, while the U.S. Army and allied troops fought Al-Mahdi militiamen for control of cities in the south. Even worse for the coalition, Shiites and Sunnis, former rivals under Saddam’s regime, united to fight the U.S. occupation.

In Fallujah, the lightly armored Marines were faced with two choices: Engage the insurgents in house to house fighting and take heavy casualties, or withdraw to the fringes of the city and rely on superior firepower. After several Marine units were ambushed, air strikes and helicopter gunships were called in to eliminate insurgent positions inside the city.

The Marine assault on Fallujah was doomed to failure. There was simply no way four Marine battalions were going to secure a hostile city of over 200,000 residents. After the assault on Fallulah failed, Marine General James Conway sought a way save face, and end the stand -off.

The Marine commander turned to Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a general in Saddam Hussein’s army, who offered to broker an end to hostilities in Fallujah. Saleh was given command of a brigade of Iraqi soldiers, and he entered Fallujah in triumph. The Marines declared victory, lifted the siege, and retreated to the fringes of the city.

The cease fire required the Iraqis to lay down their weapons and turn over the militants who killed and mutilated four Americans on March 31st. So far, only one pick-up loaded with rusted weapons has been turned in to the Marines. None of the insurgents responsible for the uprising, or for the slaying of American contractors have been surrendered to U.S. authorities. Some of those fighters have undoubtedly joined the new Fallujah Brigade and now patrol the streets of the city, this time on the U.S. payroll.

The truth is, the militiamen who fought the Marines now openly walk the streets of Fallujah claiming victory. One mujaheedin fighter who gave his name as Abu Abdullah said; “We won. We didn’t want the Americans to enter the city and we succeeded.” Fallujah is a defeat for the United States, whether we call it a withdrawal, a “repositioning of forces“, or a negotiated settlement.

The U.S. Army has fared better in the southern Iraqi cities where coalition forces are battling Al-Sadr’s militia. Army troops have more armored vehicles that are better suited for penetrating the labyrinthine streets of Iraqi cities. The coalition has taken far fewer casualties fighting the Mahdi army, but as of this writing Al Sadr’s militia still controls Kufa, Karbala, and the holy city of Najaf.

Scores of militants have been killed, and several cities in Southern Iraq have been paralyzed by the fighting. Al Sadr himself has taken refuge in Najaf, with his headquarters in Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine. Any attack on the mosque, or an attempt to apprehend Al -Sadr there, would enrage Iraq’s Shiite majority.

The Mahdi Army cannot fight U.S. tanks, at least not yet, but the U.S. cannot capture Al-Sadr without widening the war. If the U.S. extends an olive branch and negotiates with al-Sadr after vowing to capture or kill him, it will be another victory for the Iraqi militants. If U.S. forces capture al-Sadr, even moderate Shiites will rally behind him, and more militants will flock to the al-Mahdi banner. Either way, the United states will lose.

Now that the mujaheedin own Fallujah, the city provides a glimpse of what will become of Iraq. Clerics and militants rule the streets, and the mullahs have declared that “we shall only accept God’s law in Fallujah”. Western haircuts are forbidden, and anyone selling alcohol is publicly flogged. Today the city resembles an Islamic mini-state.

Even worse for the coalition, Islamic fighters hiding in Fallujah are free to use the city as a staging area for attacks throughout Iraq. Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi said, “terrorists …have been given sanctuary in Fallujah”. “The garage is open and car bombs are coming repeatedly.”

Car bombs have been used with devastating effect in Baghdad and other parts of the country since last August, when the Jordanian Embassy was destroyed. Since then over 50 suicide bombers have killed more than 700 people in Iraq. Targets have included the U.N. headquarters, Red Cross headquarters, several police stations and two entrances to the Green Zone.

This week one of those suicide car bombs killed the head of the Iraqi Governing Council. Izzadine Saleem, was the second and highest-ranking member of the U.S.-appointed council to be assassinated. The head of the Iraqi Governing Council was killed at a checkpoint in central Baghdad guarded by U.S. troops.

This speaks volumes for the lack of security and lawlessness that is de-stabilizing Iraq. In a recent survey of Iraqis conducted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, 70 percent of Iraqis cited security as their single most important priority. Kurdish council member Mahmoud Othman summed up the problem in an interview by saying; “People are killed, kidnapped and assaulted; children are taken away; women are raped. Nobody is afraid of any punishment.”

Iraq’s U.S. backed security forces lack training, funds, equipment, and most importantly, faith in the coalition cause. During the fighting in Fallujah, two battalions of Iraqi security police were ordered to deploy with the Marines, none of them showed up. The commander of the 1st Armored Division estimates that half of the Iraqi police force abandoned their posts during the uprising. Ten percent either aided the insurgents, or joined them.

The violence and lack of security have prevented the coalition from rebuilding Iraq’s tattered infrastructure. Congress has approved the largest foreign aid package in history to rebuild Iraq, but less than 5 percent of the $18.4 billion has been spent. More than 1,500 foreign engineers and building contractors have fled Iraq for fear of being abducted or killed since the uprising began in April. Those that remain are hunkered down behind security fences, instead of rebuilding roads and power grids.

Paul Bremer spoke candidly at a recent interview where he said; “It is clear that Iraqi forces will not be able, on their own, to deal with these threats by June 30”. He also hinted at the possibility of an American withdrawal from Iraq or at least an exit strategy by saying “If the provisional government asks us to leave we will leave”. “I don’t think that will happen but obviously we don’t stay in countries where we’re not welcome”.

So far, that is as close as any member of the Bush administration has come to admitting the obvious: The US occupation of Iraq is doomed to failure because the Iraqi people do not want us there. 790 U.S. service members have died since the war began last year, over 4,500 have been wounded, at a cost approaching 200 billion dollars.

President Bush attempted to allay fears of a foundering Iraq war in a recent speech that was panned by allies and critics alike. The President’s speech at the Army War College said nothing new, he simply reiterated his five point plan to ensure stability and democracy in Iraq. More important than his empty words was what the President did not say.

He did not mention Osama bin Laden in his speech, nor did the President discuss how we were going to win our other war, the worldwide War on Terror.

The United states has had 13,000 troops in Afghanistan for over two years, fighting Taliban insurgents and searching for Al-Qaeda operatives. In March of this year a secret task force including SEALS and the U.S. Army’s Delta Force began a classified operation code named Mountain Storm. The plan was to have U.S. Special forces attack Al-qaeda targets in Afghanistan, while the Pakistani Army sealed off the border region in a classic “hammer and anvil” operation.

The government of Pakistan claimed that certain “high value” Al-Qaeda targets would be surrounded and either taken into custody or killed. The Pakistani army invaded the tribal lands of the rugged northeast, only to be soundly defeated. Local warlords fought and ambushed the Pakistani army in a series of battles that cost 124 lives.

Musharraf was forced to retreat, or risk a civil war with the tribesmen. In effect Pakistan has ceded their border region to the tribes that support Al Qaeda, and they now have free rein in northeast Pakistan. The moderate, pro-American regime in Pakistan has been weakened by the defeat, and Al Qaeda leaders are openly calling for the overthrow of Musharraf’s government.

Other moderate Arab regimes could suffer the same fate. Americans have been warned to leave Saudi Arabia, as the House of Saud battles a growing Islamic insurgency in that country. Jordanian police forces recently averted a disaster when a truckload of chemicals was apprehended just before it was detonated by Al Qaeda terrorists. Both nations are under siege by organized terrorist groups that have popular support.

New Anti-American terrorist groups are gaining recruits, and older organizations are declaring solidarity with the Iraqi insurgents. The Monotheism and Jihad Group is now operating out of Iraq under the command of Al-Zarqawi, a known Al Qaeda terrorist. The new leader of Hamas has called for an Arab and Muslim alliance to defeat the U.S. and Israel. Hezbollah has called on Muslims to defend the holy shrines in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala with their lives.

Nor can the United States ignore the plans of our ultimate national nemesis, Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda movement. A report released by the International Institute of Strategic Studies details the growth of Al-Qaeda since the 9/11 attacks. The study estimates that Al-Qaeda has more than 18,000 potential terrorists scattered around the world in more than 60 nations.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan actually benefited Al-Qaeda, by forcing terrorist operatives to disperse and create cells in new countries, making the group much more difficult to detect and destroy. Osama bin Laden is now in control of a much larger organization, and his financial network has survived almost intact. His fame and the fact that he has persevered against overwhelming U.S. firepower have only enhanced Al-qaeda’s image in the Arab World.

Finally, the report concludes that the U.S. war in Iraq has attracted more followers to the Al-Qaeda movement. An estimated 1000 foreign fighters have infiltrated Iraq and joined local insurgents in the fight against U.S. occupation forces. The study concludes that the Iraq conflict “has arguably focused the energies and resources of al-Qaida and its followers while diluting those of the global counterterrorism coalition that appeared so formidable”.

Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the mujaheedin, and the Al-Mahdi Army are metastasizing into local groups fighting a common, global cause. Even the differences between Shiite and Sunni muslims do not matter any more. They are all the same because we have united them. We have given them a righteous cause by illegally invading Iraq, and we have given them convenient targets by placing US troops in their midst.

In his speech to the Army War College president Bush stated that “Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror.” He is correct. Now we must fight new enemies, that would not exist, because his misguided invasion has made Iraq the center of gravity in our war on terror.

Published in: on May 27, 2004 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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