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News you can trust about the fighting in Basra!

31 March 2008

We have the usual stream of confident but contradictory reports about the current wave of fighting in Iraq.  It is the confidence I find most interesting.  My guess is that the confidence is more deserved in the second of the two articles shown below.  The precise detail given in the first seems somewhat excessive.  Note the first reporter uses body counts as a metric of success, the second speaks of the area controlled by each side — perhaps a small indicator of reliability.

Mahdi Army taking significant casualties in Baghdad, South, Bill Roggio, The Long War Journal  (29 March 2008) — Excerpt:

With the fifth day of fighting in Baghdad, Basrah and the South completed, the Mahdi Army has suffered major losses over the past 36 hours.  The Mahdi Army has not fared well over the past five days of fighting, losing an estimated two percent of its combat power, using the best case estimate for the size of the militia.

A look at the open source press reports from the US and Iraqi military and the established newspapers indicates 145 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 81 were wounded, 98 were captured, and 30 surrendered during the past 36 hours.

Since the fighting began on Tuesday 358 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 531 were wounded, 343 were captured, and 30 surrendered.  The US and Iraqi security forces have killed 125 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad alone, while Iraqi security forces have killed 140 Mahdi fighters in Basra.

While the size of the Mahdi Army is a constant source of debate, media accounts often put the Mahdi Army at anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 fighters. With an estimated 1,000 Mahdi fighters killed, captured, wounded and surrendered, the Mahdi Army has taken an attrition rate of 1.5 to 2.5 percent over the past five days.

… The intensity in fighting is reflected in the number of press releases issued by Multinational Forces Iraq over the past 24 hours.  The US military has issued six separate press releases on fighting in Baghdad over the past 36 hours, and an additional release from Suwayrah, just south of Baghdad.

… US and British warplanes have begun to conduct strikes against Mahdi Army positions inside Basrah, while the British forces have conducted counter-battery fire against Mahdi Army mortar teams.

Roggio has an update, substantially similar in tone (more body counts):  Sadr orders followers to end fighting  (30 March 2008).

Firsthand Look at Basra Shows Value of White Flag, Qais Mizher, New York Times (31 March 2008) — Excerpt:

BASRA, Iraq – I walked, ran and crawled into central Basra on Thursday, constantly dropping to the ground because of gun battles between Mahdi Army militiamen and the Iraqi Army and the police.

… Iraqi forces started their assault on the Shiite militias in Basra on Tuesday.  Whatever the initial goal of the operation, by the time I arrived in Basra it was a patchwork of neighborhoods that were either deserted or overrun by Mahdi fighters.  There were scattered Iraqi Army and police checkpoints, but no place seemed to be truly under government control.

Early last week, when the assault started, I happened to be in Diwaniya, another southern city, as part of my work as a reporter and translator for The New York Times.  Calling on my experience as a captain in the Iraqi Army before the 2003 invasion and essentially a war correspondent since then, I headed to Basra to see if I could make my way into the city and see what was happening there.

… The next day I moved around as much as I could.  The common observation was this: There was nowhere the Mahdi either did not control or could not strike at will.

Update:  Joshua Foust comments on Roggio’s article

His description of militia mortar teams is misleading.  According to the soldiers I work with, their usual practice is  to cut holes in the roofs of their cars, drive up kind of near a FOB, fire off a few rounds, then drive away.  Or they carry small, portable tubes and do the same thing, then running off to hide.  Good luck getting an F-18 to accurately target those guys.  Makes one wonder what we are bombing.

The body count data is absurd.   This implies that we have reliable numbers of how many Iraqis have died in the war; even the DoD admits we do not.  It is of a piece with LWJ’s reporting on the missile strikes in Pakistan, where they don’t know how many people actually died in the attack — just that it was only bad guys and there were no women or children.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 March 2008 6:19 am

    I have not seen enough discussion about the dilemma the US faces on the issue of regional elections.

    On the one hand elections would strengthen the position of Sadr – and through Informed Comment I’m made to believe preventing an increase in Sadr’s power was high on the original list of reasons for the US-approved decision to postpone the elections in 2006. From Juan Cole at Informed Comment (4 August 2006):

    “I was told by an American official who had been in Baghdad that Iraqi provincial elections had been postponed because there are indications that Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement is growing in popularity in the Shiite south and his lists might sweep to power.”

    On the other hand, also through Informed Comment I’m made to believe elections are necessary to replace Shiite leaders who because of the Sunni election boycott now hold positions over Sunni areas – which is a key Sunni and probably also Saudi demand. But there is no way to hold elections that can put Sunnis into power but cannot do so for Sadr.

    It is clear to me that the US is consistently working to tip the balance of power against Sadr but it is not clear that this is a good idea. I wonder what you think.

    I think US interests may be better served by taking a neutral stance towards the Sadr/SIIC competition, or even favoring Sadr, then leaving Sadr, who is the more nationalist element of the Shiites to attempt any resolution possible with the Sunnis and then accepting a Sadr/Sunni led Iraq that would refuse a US military presence and return to projecting power from the Gulf. The US could achieve that at nearly no cost – it does not take putting more soldiers over Iraqi IEDs to accomplish this and its regional deterrence position would be about as strong as it is now, the US soldiers in Iraq are easy ways for Iran or Syria to ramp up US casualties if they want more than the soldiers or bases are threats to either country.

    What do you think about leaving Iraq in hands that are hostile to the US and Israel and relatively friendly with Iran as Sadr is.
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    Fabius Maximus: As I have written, I believe the primary question are about the structure of Iraq. Will there be an Iraq? If so, how cohesive? How strong the central government? (a state can be cohesive but with a weak central government). Can anyone but guess at these things? The aspect of the discussion I find most annoying is the certainty with which pundits guess at these things, esp from thousands of miles away with little knowledge of the region.

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  2. 31 March 2008 1:43 pm

    Does Bill Roggio seriously expect to convince us that a two percent combat loss by insurgents is something the Iraqi govt should celebrate as a victory? Come on. Any 4GW review of this fight ought to show quite the opposite, that the ability of Sadr to hold off Iraqi forces and then force Maliki to come negotiate a cease fire is a clear victory. Body counts are so 1960s.

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  3. 31 March 2008 2:01 pm

    If a blog “is a discussion of geopolitics, broadly defined, from an American’s perspective” then the level of hostility to US regional interests of various contenders for power in Iraq, US policies towards those contenders and the effects of these US policies might at least merit a comment.

    One aspect of the discussion I find frustrating, as an aside, is that US pundits are left to guess at US policies and motivations in a democracy where the policies are being enacted in their name. I’ve seen many examples of pundits deducing what US policy goals “must be” based on some action or statement. As if it’s too much to ask that government policymakers give specific statements of what their goals are in an endeavor with stakes as high as the occupation of Iraq.

    There are certainly policies the US could undertake to strengthen and others to weaken the cohesiveness of Iraq, depending on its preferences. Opposing the faction that publicly calls for national cohesion while supporting factions, the Kurds and SIIC, that publicly call for regional independence and in the Kurdish case, ultimately separation, is a policy that weakens the cohesiveness.

    I’m not sure how much US policy makers perceive Iraq cohesion to have geopolitical value and for what reasons. It’s unfortunate that I can only guess, but they don’t want to say clearly.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, but this is SOP for the US government. It was not until near the end of the Cold War that we learned about the US government;s policies for conducting it — although they had become obvious after 40 years. Likewise, after almost 7 years of the new long war our government’s goals and methods are slowly becoming clear. For example, the role of obtaining bases and oil in the government’s thinking about Iraq.

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  4. 31 March 2008 2:05 pm

    Update added: Joshua Foust comments on Roggio’s article

    His description of militia mortar teams is misleading. According to the soldiers I work with, their usual practice is to cut holes in the roofs of their cars, drive up kind of near a FOB, fire off a few rounds, then drive away. Or they carry small, portable tubes and do the same thing, then running off to hide. Good luck getting an F-18 to accurately target those guys. Makes one wonder what we are bombing.

    The body count data is absurd. This implies that we have reliable numbers of how many Iraqis have died in the war; even the DoD admits we do not. It is of a piece with LWJ’s reporting on the missile strikes in Pakistan, where they don’t know how many people actually died in the attack — just that it was only bad guys and there were no women or children.

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