Iraqi Troops ‘Switch’ Sides, Fight with Madhi Army

I noted yesterday morning an NPR report that had some members of the Iraqi national army taking off their uniforms and joining with the Mahdi Army. The Times of London‘s James Hider has more details:

Iraqi Troops ‘Switch’ Sides, Fight with Madhi Army Abu Iman barely flinched when the Iraqi Government ordered his unit of special police to move against al-Mahdi Army fighters in Basra. His response, while swift, was not what British and US military trainers who have spent the past five years schooling the Iraqi security forces would have hoped for. He and 15 of his comrades took off their uniforms, kept their government-issued rifles and went over to the other side without a second thought.

Such turncoats are the thread that could unravel the British Army’s policy in southern Iraq. The military hoped that local forces would be able to combat extremists and allow the Army to withdraw gradually from the battle-scarred and untamed oil city that has fallen under the sway of Islamic fundamentalists, oil smugglers and petty tribal warlords. But if the British taught the police to shoot straight, they failed to instil a sense of unwavering loyalty to the State.

“We know the outcome of the fighting in advance because we already defeated the British in the streets of Basra and forced them to withdraw to their base,” Abu Iman told The Times. “If we go back a bit, everyone remembers the fight with the US in Najaf and the damage and defeat we inflicted on them. Do you think the Iraqi Army is better than those armies? We are right and the Government is wrong. [Nouri al] Maliki [the Iraqi Prime Minister] is driving his Government into the ground.”

The reason for his apparent switch of sides was simple: the 36-year-old was already a member of the al-Mahdi Army which, like other militias, has massively infiltrated the British-trained police force in the southern oil city. He claimed that hundreds of others from the 16,000-strong force have also defected to the rebels’ ranks. Abu Iman joined the new Iraqi police force after the invasion, joining the Mugawil, a special police unit infamous for brutality, kidnapping and sectarian murders.

“We already heard two weeks ago that we were going to attack the Mahdi Army, so we were ready,” he said. “I decided to take off my uniform and join my brothers and friends in the Mahdi Army. All these years, we were like a scream in the face of the dictator and the occupation.” He said: “I joined the police because I believed we have to protect Basra and save it with our own hands. You can see we were the first fighters to take on Sadd-am and his regime, the best example being the Shabaniya uprising.” [emphasis added]

The numbers here are sketchy, so it’s hard to assess the scale of the problem. We’ve known for years that the army and police forces were “infiltrated” by members of the various militia which are alternately pro- and anti-government. As Kevin Drum observes, it’s nearly impossible for outsiders (and maybe insiders) to “tell the players without a program in the 2-way (or is it 3-way or 4-way?) intra-Shiite gang war currently underway in Basra and southern Iraq.”

There’s also, oddly, some disconnect as to who’s to blame for the level of training of said forces. The Times‘ report pins it on the Brits but the NYT report by James Glanz and Steven Lee Meyers says it’s the Yanks.

American-trained Iraqi security forces failed for a third straight day to oust Shiite militias from the southern city of Basra on Thursday, even as President Bush hailed the operation as a sign of the growing strength of Iraq’s federal government.

The idea that this sort of conflict would be resolved in three days, even by the most proficient and loyal forces, is absurd. Even if this works, it’ll take a couple of weeks.

There’s also some very real question as to who called this play and for what reasons.

Although Mr. Bush praised the Iraqi government for leading the fighting, it also appeared that the Iraqi government was pursuing its own agenda, calling the battles a fight against “criminal” elements but seeking to marginalize the Mahdi Army. The Americans share the Iraqi government’s hostility toward what they call rogue elements of the Mahdi Army but will also be faced with the consequences if the battles among Shiite factions erupt into more widespread unrest.

Regardless of who started it, American forces are naturally joining sides with the Maliki government in order to salvage the situation. A front page WaPo story by Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman reports that U.S. mech infantry forces (Stryker brigades) are not only taking part but taking the lead now in Basra. More problematically, AP reports that we’re dropping bombs in Basra. Apparently, someone missed the memo that this is a counterinsurgency operation and that the goal is political reconciliation.

And talk about surreal (from Glanz and Meyers):

The violence underscored the fragile nature of the security improvements partly credited to the American troop increase that began last year. Officials have acknowledged that a cease-fire called by Mr. Sadr last August has contributed to the improvements. Should the cease-fire collapse entirely, those gains could be in serious jeopardy, making it far more difficult to begin bringing substantial numbers of American troops home.

Although Sadr officials insisted on Thursday that the cease-fire was still in effect, Mr. Sadr has authorized his forces to fight in self-defense, and the battles in Basra appear to be eroding the cease-fire.

I can’t wrap my Western mind around the idea of a cease-fire that’s simultaneously in effect and taking place during the midst of an all-out assault.

More on the scorecard front:

Thousands of demonstrators in Sadr City on Thursday denounced Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has personally directed the Basra operation, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite cleric who leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a political party that is a crucial member of the coalition keeping Mr. Maliki in power.

The Supreme Council’s armed wing, the Badr Organization, is one of the most powerful rivals of the Mahdi Army in Basra, where Shiite militias have been fighting among themselves for years to control neighborhoods, oil revenues, electricity access, the ports and even the local universities.

The third powerful element in the city is the Fadhila Party, which split from the Sadrists years ago and has its own militia. The three parties are expected to be rivals in the next round of provincial council elections, now scheduled for October. Many Sadr supporters pointed to those elections, and the possibility that their party might gain a majority of the seats, as a motivation for the Basra assault.

If the ongoing fighting is decisive one way or the other, the coalitions will change. But they’re unlikely to be permanent; such doesn’t seem to exist in the Middle East.

UPDATE: Jules Crittenden believes Sadr’s forces learned something from Najaf: “Apparently the failure to destroy the Mahdi Army in Najaf, allowing them to live to fight another day, made an impression.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    The numbers here are sketchy, so it’s hard to assess the scale of the problem

    Indeed, and it seems to me to the advantage of those who would like the idea that things are going badly to spread, that they remain sketchy.

    em>Although Sadr officials insisted on Thursday that the cease-fire was still in effect, Mr. Sadr has authorized his forces to fight in self-defense, and the battles in Basra appear to be eroding the cease-fire.

    I can’t wrap my Western mind around the idea of a cease-fire that’s simultaneously in effect and taking place during the midst of an all-out assault.

    What Sadr is playing here, is a game called “But… He started it”.

    There’s this, also. we’ve seen this often enough before, where groups over there sue for peace to get what they could not obtain in battle.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Pat Lang’s most recent analysis of the situation.

  3. Dave E. says:

    First of all, the Times report quotes a defecting local police officer, not a soldier. It’s a mistake to conflate the local police with the Iraqi Army.

    Second, the Post report has the Strykers in Baghdad, not Basra.

    Third, it’s no surprise that Coalition Forces would provide air support in Basra as the Iraqi Army does not yet have those assets in any number.

    There’s a lot of confused crap out there on this operation, including what is probably propaganda from the Mahdi Army. I’m disappointed that you are adding to that confusion.

  4. Triumph says:

    I can’t wrap my Western mind around the idea of a cease-fire that’s simultaneously in effect and taking place during the midst of an all-out assault.

    Its not that hard to understand, kimosabe. Maliki’s militia (better known as the Iraqi army) launched an offensive against al-Sadr earlier this week. Sadr has controlled significant areas in Iraq.

    Maliki sees a possibility if Obama wins that US support for his militia could evaporate, so he needs to try and eradicate his rivals while Bush still has his back.

    al-Sadr can thus claim that they are being subjected to an un-provoked assault and are only acting in self-defense given the violation of the cease fire by Maliki.

  5. rotwang says:

    The great irony is that Maliki has forced the US into a position where it must both a) undermine its own surge by forcing Sadr to fight, and b) throw its support behind the Iranian proxies (Maliki’s forces, the Badr Corps and other Shi’ite militias).

    Sadr’s an Iraqi nationalist who only ever had a queasy co-dependency with Teheran. If he “loses,” Southern Iraq will almost certainly become a separatist, Shi’ite super-province with strong Iranian influence.

    Too bad that means they’d control both our main supply road and only path of retreat to Kuwait.