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How the U.S. Just Got Schooled by a 'Rag-Tag' Neighborhood Army in Iraq

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  • Ed Pearl
    http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/81147/?page=entire How the U.S. Just Got Schooled by a Rag-Tag Neighborhood Army in Iraq By Gary Brecher, The eXile. Posted
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 5, 2008
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      http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/81147/?page=entire

      How the U.S. Just Got Schooled by a 'Rag-Tag' Neighborhood Army in Iraq

      By Gary Brecher,
      The eXile. Posted April 4, 2008.


      A week ago, Bush called the offensive in Basra a "defining moment" for Iraq.
      Suddenly he's gotten very quiet.

      What happened in Iraq this week was a beautiful lesson in the weird laws of
      guerrilla warfare. Unfortunately, it was the Americans who got schooled.
      Even now, people at my office are saying, "We won, right? Sadr told his men
      to give up, right?"

      Wrong. Sadr won big. Iran won even bigger. Maliki, the Iraqi Army, Petraeus
      and Cheney lost.

      For people raised on stories of conventional war, where both sides fight
      all-out until one side loses and gives up, what happened in Iraq this past
      week makes no sense at all. Sadr's Mahdi Army humiliated the Iraq Army on
      all fronts. In Basra, the Army's grand offensive, code-named "The Charge of
      the Knights," got turned into "The Total Humiliation of the Knights," like
      something out of an old Monty Python skit.

      Thousands of police who were supposed to be backing up the Iraqi Army either
      refused to fight or defected to Sadr's Mahdi Army. In Basra, the Iraqi Army
      was stopped dead and clearly in danger of being crushed or forced to retreat
      from the city. In Baghdad, Sadr's militia was rocketing the Green Zone
      non-stop -- not a good look for the "Surge is working" PR drive -- and
      driving the Iraqi Army clean out of the 2.5-million-strong Shia slum, Sadr
      City. And in every poor Shia neighborhood in cities and towns all over Iraq,
      local units of the Mahdi Army were attacking the government forces.

      Then, after four days of uninterruptedly kicking Iraqi Army ass, Sadr
      graciously announces that he's telling his men to end their "armed
      appearances" on the streets. Makes no sense, right? It makes a ton of sense,
      but you have to stop thinking of formal battles like Gettysburg and
      Stalingrad and think long and slow, like a guerrilla.

      If you want to know how not to think about Iraq, just start with anything
      ever said or imagined by Cheney or Bush. Our Commander in Chief declared a
      week ago when the Iraqi Army first marched into Basra, "I would say this is
      a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq." When the Iraqi Army fled a
      few days later, he suddenly got very quiet. But anybody could see how
      deluded the poor fucker is just by all the nonsense he managed to cram into
      that 15-word sentence. I mean, "the history of a free Iraq"?

      But that's nothing compared to Bush's fundamentally wrong notion that
      there's even such a thing as a "defining moment" in an urban guerrilla war.
      Guerrilla wars are slow, crock-pot wars. To win this kind of war, the long
      war, takes patience. Trying to force a "defining moment" by military action
      is not just ignorant and idiotic, but risks further demoralizing your side
      when that moment doesn't happen, as it inevitably won't. What happens when
      you launch premature strikes on a neighborhood-based group like the Mahdi
      Army is that you just end up convincing their neighborhoods that the
      occupiers are the enemy, and the Mahdi boys -- local guys you've known all
      your life -- are heroes, defending your glorious slum from the foreigners
      and their lackeys.

      By the time a homegrown group like Sadr's is ready to "announce itself" on
      the streets, it's put in years of serious grassroots work winning over the
      locals block by block. The Mahdi Army runs its own little world in the
      neighborhoods it controls. It distributes food to the poor, deals out rough
      justice to the local criminals, and runs the checkpoints that keep Sunni
      suicide bombers off the block. It's the home team, the Oakland Raiders times
      one million, for people in places like Sadr City. You can't eradicate it
      without eradicating the whole neighborhood -- or making it so rich that
      people don't need a gang. That's probably the only sure way to end guerrilla
      wars: make the locals so rich they're not interested in gang life any more.
      And that's not going to happen any time soon for the people crammed into
      places like Sadr City. Until then, the Mahdi Army is their team and they're
      sticking by it.

      By attacking Sadr's neighborhoods this week, Maliki's troops pushed the Shia
      masses closer to Sadr; and by losing, they made the slum people prouder than
      ever of their home team. That's what you get when you go for a "defining
      moment" in guerrilla war.

      To understand what happened this week, you need to zoom out to the big
      picture, see what Petraeus and Maliki thought would happen, and then forward
      it to what actually did happen. Iraq right now has four real zones of
      influence: Kurdistan, which is withdrawing and fortifying itself as fast as
      it can; the Sunni Triangle, bloodied by four years of fighting the US and
      ready to be bribed for a while; Baghdad, which is turning into a
      Shia-dominated city fast; and Basra, solidly Shia. The major action now is
      Shia vs. Shia.

      The way Petreaus and Maliki saw it, they've dealt with the Sunni insurgency
      and now it was time to send the Iraqi Army south to take sides in the
      militia battles around Basra and do a little shock-and-awe on Sadr.

      The Shia are divided into lots of factions; for example, Bush's guy Maliki
      leads the Dawa Party, a small group, small enough that he got to be leader
      because he didn't threaten either of the two really big, serious Shia
      groups: the Sadrists and the supposedly more moderate SIIC. Both those
      groups have the classic urban guerrilla division into political party and
      armed wing. The SIIC's armed wing used to be called the Badr Brigade, and
      still fights under that name down in Basra. But the core of the Badr forces
      now go by a fancier name: the Iraqi Army.

      The Badr Brigade has an interesting history. During the Iran-Iraq War, it
      fought for the Iranians against Saddam, as a big (50,000-man) auxiliary
      unit. When the U.S. disbanded Saddam's army and the Sunni went insurgent,
      the Badr Brigade stepped smoothly into the power vacuum and became the core
      of the new Iraqi Army. So don't think of this as a real Western-style
      national army, drawn from all of Iraq's various groups or any of that crap.
      The current Iraqi Army is a Shia militia, loyal to the SIIC, that just
      happens to be willing to wear the uniforms we bought them. They're not
      really in it for "the nation," much less their American paymasters. They're
      there to use their new fancy weapons and big money to push the SIIC's agenda
      down everybody else's throats.

      And like I have to keep saying over and over, the purely military hardware
      aspect of this sort of war is the least important factor of all. The Iraqi
      Army/SIIC militia had the weaponry on their side, and they still got their
      asses kicked by the Sadrists, because the Sadrists were defending their home
      neighborhoods, those stinking slums that mean the whole world to people who
      live there. Victory in insurgency is a matter of morale, and you build it
      slowly, the way Mao said, by helping the locals in their dull little civvie
      lives. Then, when the army comes to try to take you down, they don't have a
      chance, because you've prepped the neighborhood well, the locals are your
      eyes and ears, and it just plain doesn't mean as much to the government
      troops as it does to your cadre who were raised there. That's why
      Hezbollah's part-time amateurs were able to beat the Israeli professionals
      in 2006, and that's why Sadr was ahead of the game when he called the fight
      off this week.

      Truth is, if any group comes out of this looking good, militarily or
      morally, it's the Mahdi Army and their leader, the fat man himself, "Mookie"
      as they call him on Free Republic: Moqtada al-Sadr. His people aren't
      saints; they have their own kidnapping/murder squads, a lot of them
      connected with the Health Ministry, which is a Sadr stronghold. But the
      Sadrists have consistently stuck with the urban poor, tried to form
      alliances with the Sunni (didn't work) and played a cool, calm, long-term
      game -- just like Hezbollah in Lebanon. In fact, the quickest way to
      understand Sadr is to think of Hezbollah's leader, Nasrullah. Hezbollah
      built its power by providing social services to the poorest Lebanese
      Shi'ites, and the Mahdi Army works the same way. Of course you could argue
      that they both got the idea from the old master, Mao himself, who
      consistently downplayed the macho combat stuff and insisted that the
      guerrillas should work with the civilians, doing the dull peacetime stuff
      like public health, building projects, food distribution.

      Like Hezbollah, the Sadrists cooperate with Iran, but no way in the world
      are they Iranian puppets. In fact, it's the SIIC's military wing -- the core
      of the current Iraqi Army -- that has an embarrassing history of fighting
      for the Iranians against their own country, Iraq. But that doesn't mean
      they're puppets either.

      When Iraqi Shi'ites want to insult each other, they accuse each other of
      being pro-Iranian, and it is an accusation. They buy the idea of an "Iraqi
      nation," as long as it's their gang running it. One thing you can absolutely
      count on in the Middle East is that every clan, every sect, is going to look
      out for itself. The middle-class Shia in SIIC/Badr Brigades are using us;
      the Sadrists are using Iran; but they're both out for their own communities.
      Sadr would probably have been willing to cooperate with the U.S., if Bremer
      hadn't pushed him into rebellion in 2004. So it's a mistake to think of any
      of these groups as having permanent alliances. They're practical people.

      So are the Iranians. They really know how to play this kind of long, slow
      war. They can control exactly the level of chaos inside Iraq by feeding
      weapons and money in when they want to heat the place up, then withholding
      supplies when they want to cool it down. They're embedded with every
      militia, even the Sunni groups, and they use them like control rods in a
      nuke reactor. The way the ceasefire this week was arranged says it all: a
      bunch of big Shia politicians flew to Qom, Khomeini's hometown in Iran, and
      begged the Iranians to stop the shooting. They talked to Sadr, and Sadr
      agreed -- for good reason.

      And that brings us back to today's story problem in "How to Think Like A
      Guerrilla." The question was, "If Moqtada S. is kicking ass all over Iraq,
      why does he call off his militia before they can win total 'Western-style'
      victory?"

      If you've learned your lesson here, you should be able to answer that
      question now. Sadr called off his boys because:

      1. The first job of a guerrilla army is to stay alive. That's much more
      important than winning a Western-style victory. The Mahdi Army is intact,
      ready for the next round. Mao said it best: "Lose men to take land, land and
      men both lost; lose land and keep men, land can be retaken." In other words,
      play for the long term and remember that your troops are your biggest asset.
      Never go for broke.

      2. The next most important job of a guerrilla army is to maintain and grow
      its support in the neighborhood. Sadr has his own constituency -- and I mean
      that literally, since all the Shia groups are positioning themselves for
      elections this Fall. By calling off the fight, he spares his people further
      gore and destruction and comes off as the compassionate defender of the
      poor. Just in time for campaign season.

      3. A guerrilla army facing occupiers with a monopoly on air power is
      committing suicide by going for total victory on the ground, seizing an
      entire city or district. Just ask the Sunni, who bunkered up in Fallujah and
      got slaughtered. By melting back into the civilian population, the Sadrists
      are now invulnerable to air attack.

      4. After four straight days of failure by the Badr Brigade/Iraqi Army, the
      US was frustrated enough to start committing American ground troops to the
      assault on Sadr. That would have meant serious casualties for the Mahdi
      Army, as it did when they took on US forces in 2004. Not that they're afraid
      to die for their neighborhood -- Shias? You kidding me? -- but because it
      would be stupid to die fighting the Americans when everyone in Iraq knows
      the US just doesn't figure much in the long term.

      Sadr's not afraid of us, he and his commanders just see us as a dangerous
      nuisance, like a chained pit bull they have to step around. Ten years from
      now, every player in the current game will still be playing this slow, shady
      game, except one: the Americans.
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