Sunday, February 01, 2009

A promise of peace

Having spent the last three months immersed in writing up an account of the Iraqi occupation in the British sector, from May 2003 to date, the "great work" is finished all bar the all-important processes of editing, cleaning up and revision. Writing 90,000 words, give or take, has been an interesting experience, and highly educative. If anything, I am appalled at my own ignorance when I embarked on the project.

The story, though, is not quite at an end. British troops cease operations in May and must be out of the country by the end of July, barring 400 or so who will continue training and mentoring duties.

Already, the British government and the military are re-writing history to make out that the occupation was a tremendous success, achieving everything they set out to achieve. Everything went to plan, especially if – as Montgomery was often accused of doing – you re-write that plan after then event and forget what you said at the time.

Aside from the posturing of the British, great events are taking place with the regional elections completed yesterday and the count underway. Little of what is at stake, however, emerges in the British media, and one must look elsewhere for a hint of what is important.

If you know what you are looking for, The Washington Post provides that hint. Buried in its syndicated report, you find a suggestion that the election was "in part" a referendum on two of Iraq's influential personalities – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

While al-Maliki hopes to deepen his growing influence through election victories by his loyalists, we are told, al-Sadr is hoping to reverse his waning political clout by supporting independent candidates.

That indeed is the issue. More than anything, it was Sadr's Mahdi Army which cast is reign of terror over Basra and the south, latterly displacing the Fadhila and Badr militias, to become the major threat to peace and stability, not only in the south, but in the whole of Iraq. The hope is that Sadr is a busted flush, and there is every reason to think that this is the case.

In that context, you will find numerous references to last year's "Charge of the Knights" operation, masterminded by Maliki, when the grip of the Mahdi Army was broken in Basra. However, while Muqtada was faced down, he was not defeated. In 2004, in the first Mahdi Army uprisings, his attacks were seen off and his followers sustained heavy losses. They were to gather strength and return in greater force.

This time, however, it is different. Earlier, Sadr's armoury and weapons distribution centre in Maysan, with its hub in al Amarah, was theoretically under British control but, in fact, under the control of the Mahdi Army, left largely undisturbed. As long as this centre remained undisturbed, Muqtada had stocks of weapons, and a cadre of fighters on which he could rely.

What makes the current so different is that, now, al Amarah has been neutralised. And, while "Charge of the Nights" was well-reported, in which the media consistently called it wrong, the follow-up operation, barely reported, was far more significant, a comprehensive and humiliating defeat for Muqtada.

As far as we can ascertain, the operation actually started last May, with US Air Force F-16s and Navy F-18 Hornets and Super Hornet bombers performing "shows of force" and precision bombing through May and into June. At one stage, an RAF Tornado joined the fray. More airpower, it seemed, was committed to this stage of the operation than the British had enjoyed throughout their whole tenure in Maysan.

As this phase of the operation started, on or around 10 May, Iraqi Special Operations Forces detained three suspected "Special Groups criminals" in al-Amarah. On 5 June, the unit mounted another raid into the city and captured one more such "criminal". As guests of the Iraqi Army, one can only speculate on the hospitality they were afforded – and the intelligence they offered in exchange. Nine days after the second raid, Iraqi and US troops were pouring into the area, ringing the city. Operation Basha'er as-Salaam – "Promise of Peace" – had begun.

Backed by the Iraqi Army's 10th Division, special forces units, and elements of the US 10th Mountain and 1st Cavalry Divisions, amounting to some 22,000 troops in all, Maliki issued an ultimatum to the Mahdi Army. Repeating the successful strategy he had used in Basra, he gave them three days to lay down their arms – offering an amnesty to those who did. He also offered cash for any heavy weapons surrendered.

Maliki was, he said, giving the "outlaws and the members of the organised crime groups a last chance to review their stance." Iraqi and US soldiers then set up security checkpoints on the main roads, distributing leaflets urging people to stay indoors and remain calm.

To press home the point, US Navy Hornets made low passes over the city. Faced with such overwhelming force, Muqtada caved in, sending a delegation to the city to order his fighters to stand down. And it was a complete and utter capitulation. While Muqtada had made a fight of it in Basra, here he held his hands up and surrendered.

On 19 June, as the ultimatum expired, the troops moved in. Not a shot was fired. Militia fighters were seen throwing their weapons into the canals. One of the first targets for the troops was Mayor, who was arrested and detained, with about 16 other Sadr organisation officials.

Moving through the rest of the silent, fearful city, the Iraqi Army brought with them a secret weapon - over 10,000 halal ready-meals. Setting up distribution points in 12 neighbourhoods, they handed them out to all comers. By midday, the streets were thronging with life.

Following the troops were "community transportation improvement teams," ready to start a programme of city public works and highway sanitation. Before that, teams of national police, brought in with the troops, conducted house-to-house searches.

Far from meeting resistance, as had the British, they met with enthusiastic citizens telling them where to look. The results speak for themselves. Within days, the search teams had detained approximately 200 militia and collected more than 220 weapon caches, distributed in homes, businesses and public areas throughout the city.

The haul amounted to 2,262 mortar bombs, 1,034 mines, 971 artillery rounds, 749 rocket-propelled grenades, 598 rockets, 259 missile launchers, 176 IEDs, 259 grenades, 43 heavy machine-gun barrels, 141 EFPs and 22 missiles. After a month of occupation, the Iraqi Army had not seen a single gunfight, not one IED attack, nor received any indirect fire.

Operations continued in Maysan, occasionally meeting with sporadic resistance. It was quickly suppressed, and more caches were found. On 16 August, Iraqi and US troops discovered near al Amarah, 250 EFP plates, 125 107 mm rockets, two rocket launchers, 15 120 mm mortar bombs, one mortar tube and two sniper rifles.

By early October, Col Philip Battaglia, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, was confident that the resistance had been broken. The weapons haul now exceeded 8,000, including about 600 EFPs.

Said Battaglia, "al-Amarah ... was an area where these devices were assembled and then from there shipped to other parts of the country, into Baghdad and other places." He added, "We believe - we know - that we have interrupted the flow of these explosives."

Gen Petraeus then announced that the flow of weapons was drying up throughout Iraq. "We think we are literally running out of safe havens and strongholds and starting to run out of these areas where there were these very significant caches," he said.

With that, the scourge of al Amarah was ending. Muqtada's power base had been broken and, since then, there has been a return to near-normality in Maysan province.

The elections held on Saturday were the first opportunity for Iraqi citizens to pronounce a verdict on the operations. From the look of it, Maliki's supporters seem to have made string gains in the south, especially in Basra and also in Muqtada's earlier stronghold, Najaf.

Even then, a later report in the Washington Post is reading it wrong. That puts the contest as between the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Maliki's Dawa Party and his allies, but the real battle is indeed between Muqtada and Maliki.

If the unofficial results are confirmed, then there is hope for the peoples of Iraq, and some optimism that this beleaguered country might at last see that "promise of peace". If it does, the turning point may have been Basra, but the enemy was defeated in al Amarah – without a shot being fired.