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

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

Gary Brecher's first book, "War Nerd," is due out on June 1. Pre-order now !

 
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