Cracking Sadr City

Sadr City (MNF-I Slide)

Combat operations continue in Sadr City, the Shiite slums in the northeast quadrant of Baghdad that are home to more than a million Iraqis, including many followers of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. According to the map on the Long War Journal site, it appears that U.S. forces have effectively cordoned off Sadr City from the rest of Baghdad, using a combination of walls, checkpoints, aerial interdiction, and blocking positions at major intersections. The near-term goal appears to be the prevention of rocket attacks on the Green Zone from Sadr City; the long-term goal remains unclear, but may include the wholesale clearance of this district.

This is textbook counterinsurgency, lifted straight from the pages of FM 3-24 and David Galula: first isolate the population you intend to focus your efforts on, so as to eliminate the insurgents' ability to infiltrate and exfiltrate at will. Then attack, using a combination of political, economic, military and diplomatic initiatives. Yet I agree with my colleague at Abu Muqawama: cracking Sadr City is likely to be tougher than cracking the Anbar province. There isn't likely to be any Shiite awakening in Sadr City, the security forces are heavily infiltrated and dominated by Sadr's forces, and there's as much bad blood in Sadr City as there was in Fallujah in 2004. We may ultimately have to fight for every block.

By Phillip Carter |  May 12, 2008; 12:30 PM ET  | Category:  Iraq
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Fighting every block is the expensive option. Withdrawal from the Green Zone would be a much more effective way of reducing costs and casualties.

The question of who has the right to control Baghdad is significant. It ain't us. Let the Iraqis sort out their own problems.

Posted by: Lart from Above | May 12, 2008 1:42 PM

Isolating and clearing a 2.5 million person city?!?!?!?!?!?

Posted by: Barry | May 12, 2008 1:55 PM

This plan, like all of this occupation, is just pure evil and murder on a mass scale. There is no flag big enough to cover our shame.

Posted by: Susan | May 12, 2008 5:24 PM

Pacifying Sadr City will be harder this time than it was in 2004. Primary reason is that the tribal system no longer exists in Sadr City as it once did. Madhi and other Shia street gangs replaced tribes as power centers.

I seriously doubt a wholesale house by house search. Besides logistically not feasible, it probably wouldn't even be effective. There are simply too many places to hide. I think it is more likely that we will see a hardening of the secure areas to protect the Green Zone as the primary goal. As far as clearing out the rest of the Special Groups, that will happen over time by the local population as long as the local population has a belief that the security forces can protect them from retribution. (in other words, once a security presence is established, the security forces must remain ever present).

Posted by: bg | May 12, 2008 5:59 PM

This reminds me of Belfast.

Is this what Patreaus wanted those extra troops for, to fight through Sadr City the way we fought through Falluja? Holy Cow, I don't think this is the way to get the public behind his strategy. He's creating his own Tet Offensive.

Yes, I know, I've mixed comparisions. But, it's a mixed-up war.

Posted by: DanPatrick | May 12, 2008 6:18 PM

Those on the left, like Susan above, refuse to realize that Iraq has a democratically elected government, that has a parliament which passed laws outlawing its citizens from possessing mortars, RPGs, IEDs etc. Each household can have an AK-47. There is one government in Iraq, and as Ramadi, Fallujah, and now Basrah have seen, no other militia group is going to maintain control over any part of Iraq other than the elected government. This , dear Susan, is not like the situation in the U.S., where the government has ceded control to militia gangs in sizable parts of Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit, NYC, Chicago, Durham(NC), and many other places. There have been more murders in Chicago this year than in Ramadi and Fallujah combined. Chew on that .

Posted by: sweetmick | May 12, 2008 6:50 PM

You pose some questions and make a lot of statements, Phil. But you fail to ask the most critical one:


Why is this a must-do operation? This isn't mostly empty desert and mud-hut villages. This is Fallujah writ large. We might have to "destroy it in order to save it".

And this is because...we want to disarm the JAM?

(And why is disarming the JAM so much more important than disarming, say, the Iranian-affiliated Badr militia? Or the ex- and maybe-not-so-ex-AQ-subsidiaries now going under the moniker "Sons of Iraq"?)

Because...Sadr and the Sadrist trend are Islamists?

(And the gang we're supporting are called the "Rotarian Supreme Council of Iraq"?)

Because...the Sadrists are Iranian allies?

(And our boys the Malkists, Dawa and their ISCI pals are...ummm...not?)

If we were asked to intervene in Sri Lanka to fight the Tamil Tigers we'd laugh. We have no dog in that fight, and, frankly, the Sri Lankan "government" is less vile but no more democratic and no more an ally than the LTTE. If the British asked us to bomb the Provos in Belfast we'd scoff.

Why is it suddenly so bloody critical that we fight our way into a Shiite slum so that our Shiite "allies" can eliminate one of their sectarian rivals?

Why, Phil?

I'll be the first to say that Sadr is kind of a scumbag. Take away the 12er Shia nonsense and he's Juan Peron in a turban. But try and take a long view of this: he's probably the only one of our Shia coalition that has openly spoken against Iranian influence. Of course, he's openly resisted U.S. influence, too. So if we want another hundred years of occupation, he's got to go.

You don't suppose...? 'Cause I'm sure our leaders would tell us if they were proposing to occupy Iraq into the indefinate future - if they were proposing that we become, in effect, the de facto colonial rulers of Iraq and as such would need to kill or imprison any Iraqi who spoke openly of fighting and killing Americans to free his country of such an occupation.

Wouldn't they?

Posted by: FDChief | May 12, 2008 6:51 PM

"There is one government in Iraq, and as Ramadi, Fallujah, and now Basrah have seen, no other militia group is going to maintain control over any part of Iraq other than the elected government."

No militia group other than Badr and their affiliates, right, brother?

Elected government. Heh. Next thing you know you'll be on about purple fingers...

This is no different than the Falange vs. Hezbollah in Beirut, except here both sides are cozying up to the Iranians. Get real, man. We're being played. If we want to play divide et impera in the Islamic Crescent, let's get our Roman on and do it. Just remember the last time a bunch of Christians got stuck into the Middle East - we ended up with the Ottomans hammering on the doors of Vienna.

You want? Take. But don't kid yourself. This isn't LAPD vs 8-3 Crips. This is Crips vs. Bloods. Chew on THAT.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 12, 2008 6:56 PM

FDChief --

Good points. The "why" is a critical question, and one we haven't seen any answers to. I'm not quite clear on how this Sadr City effort connects to the broader Iraq strategy, nor what our endgame is here. Without those answers, we're shadow boxing.

Posted by: Phillip Carter | May 12, 2008 7:41 PM

Interesting, our new strategy in Iraq seems to owe more to Saddam than FM 324. Keep nearly all Iraqis out of and in awe of the OZ like symbols of American power. Build grandly on the model of Saddam's palaces, imposing and intimidating structures like the new U.S. embassy, and this bears repeating, make them off limits to the natives. Then clear out the surrounding area. Tear everything down driving away the local inhabitants and repopulate with tame "Baathist like" loyalists. Engage heavily in group punishment in places like Sadr City the way Saddam did in Kurdistan. He maintained security and order by being prepared to slaughter large numbers of civilians to eliminate "criminal" threats to the regime, many supported by Iran, hiding amongst them. I used to think Saddam was a murderous thug but I now know that he was just engaging in a "classic" counter insurgency strategy.

Posted by: marc | May 12, 2008 8:01 PM

And how, pray tell,does this differ significantly from what was done in Warsaw 1940 to the Jews? What is the Arabic term for Ghetto? I suspect we'll be hearing it soon enough. FM3-24 sounds like a take off on the German field manual for uprising initiation.

Posted by: TomByrd | May 12, 2008 8:44 PM

To update the saying, and repeating FDChief, "We had to destroy the country to save it"??

After we "clear" Sadr City, what are the current residents supposed to do? Perhaps someone can suggest a final solution?

Posted by: EdA | May 12, 2008 8:58 PM

The Iraqi govt actually proposed uprooting Sadr City inhabitants and making them camp in a football stadium. Classic counterinsurgency indeed, a la fortified hamlets of Vietnam. Fortunately, they backed down, at least for now, in the face of the public reaction.

Nothing is going to uproot the Sadrists from Sadr City. You might as well trying uprooting New Yorkers from New York.

It IS their home, after all. How about uprooting the Americans from Iraq? Now that sounds like a plan.

Posted by: kenonwenu | May 12, 2008 9:23 PM

The WHY is simple. From Sadr City you can lob things into the Green Zone.

It's just dead embarrassing to have to keep hiding under the desk when the congress men or the press come to visit.

I mean how can you claim to be winning a war then your national CP is under mortar attack?

Why yes Mr Congress man, we are winning this war. But please wear this bullet proof vest and helmet, and don't stand outside in the sun or near a window.

Posted by: JM | May 12, 2008 9:27 PM

"The WHY is simple. From Sadr City you can lob things into the Green Zone."

You bet. This is all about putting lipstick on the pig that is Iraq. After all, if it isn't safe in the Green Zone, what does that say about the rest of Iraq? And about our so-called Iraqi strategy?

Make the Green Zone safe for the wealthy, Iraqis and foreigners alike, and let the rest of the country continue to degenerate into the Wild, Wild West. That's the tactical objective of this exercise in futility that will ultimately only see more GIs and Iraqis die needlessly. Think of the medal citation: "SGT (fill it in) died to make investment in the Green Zone sufficiently attractive for the Marriott Corporation and other Western businesses."

Does either government (U.S. or Iraqi) have anything vaguely resembling a strategy in this circus? Other than making money for some, that is?

Posted by: Publius | May 13, 2008 12:31 AM

Amazingly, Sadr's 60,000 man army with 5,000 commandos, as reported in NYT and elsewhere, seems to have been de-materialized in Basrah. Even the NYT just said it's hard to believe the freedom people feel in the short time there after Sadr/Iran gangs were and are being routed. Maliki was right. There is no way Iraq can become a relatively stable, relatively prosperous democracy if militia gangs control any part of Iraq. Only two thirds of Sadr City, small parts of Basrah, and much of Mosul are controlled by Sadr or Al Qaeda. Maliki and his "Charge of the Mice", as the Iraqi Army was called in the first few days of the assault on Basrah, have proven to be courageous and effective fighters. They took the lead in Basrah and are leading the fight in Mosul. As we see in the United States, you can't bring change to violent , gang ruled parts of many big cities until first you eliminate the criminals. Only then can you implement plans for economic and education revivals. Iraq is no different. The Democrats greatest fear of course, is not that the Iraqi armed forces , Sons of Iraq, and the U.S.will pacify these remaining key holdout areas, but that they'll do it well before the elections in Nov.

Posted by: sweetmick | May 13, 2008 12:55 AM

"This is textbook counterinsurgency, lifted straight from the pages of FM 3-24 and David Galula: first isolate the population you intend to focus your efforts on, so as to eliminate the insurgents' ability to infiltrate and exfiltrate at will. Then attack, using a combination of political, economic, military and diplomatic initiatives."

As others have alluded to - this sounds frighteningly more similar to war crimes en masse than it does to any sort of legitimate "counterinsurgency" imperative.
Mr. Carter - if you can't answer the "Why?", then how in the hell can you laud the "What"?

Posted by: Corner Stone | May 13, 2008 1:19 AM

Posted by: Phillip Carter

"FDChief --

Good points. The "why" is a critical question, and one we haven't seen any answers to. I'm not quite clear on how this Sadr City effort connects to the broader Iraq strategy, nor what our endgame is here. Without those answers, we're shadow boxing."

Or, to bring back a phrase from a couple of years back, we're playing 'whack a mole', but on a far grander scale.

Posted by: Barry | May 13, 2008 7:05 AM

Well, given that there may or may NOT be a "ceasefire" agreement in place this may be a dead letter. But I can see how the defenestration of the Sadrists serves three objects:

1. For the Maliki kleptocracy it allows them to use their U.S. ally as a proxy to eliminate an internal rival without being the "bad guy" having to trust their own troops who may or may not be happy about fighting Maliki's gang way. Sweetmick aside, the heavy lifting in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul seems to have been done by foreign troops and fire support.

2. For the U.S., it elimnates embarassing evidence of unrest in the form of daily barrages into the GZ, and (for a certain faction) continues the original "strategy" that got us there - the pursuit of long-term basing rights and a SOFA that secures a central position for CENTCOM in the Middle East.

3. For Iran, it eliminates a rival for power and especially an Iraq-for-Iraqis irritant, while keeping him alive and in place as an anti-U.S. influence.

For me, the downside of this is it welds us to ONE faction in this dysfunctional state. We now cannot ever allow a Sadrist to be elected, or if elected, to serve - they will be even more committed to ejecting us from Camp Victory et al. We make this mistake over and over: Musharraf in Pakistan, Mubarak in Egypt, Karzai in Afghanistan. We buck these tigers and then have to keep them in power, becoming the props for dictators and earning the justified loathing of every local outside the ruling elites. In pursuit of...what? Petroleum? Influence? Great power props? We have become what our Founders despised - just another colonialist stomping about the less-paved parts of the world. They worried, as do I, less about what it means for the locals subjugated (it means misgovernment and misery, it ALWAYS means misgovernment and misery but they're perfectly capable of that without our help) and more of what this will mean for us. Welcome to the new U.S., now with 40% less principle.

Somewhere in Elysium, Thomas Jefferson just threw up a little in his mouth.

Posted by: FDChief | May 13, 2008 8:30 AM

I think we all know the why. If the goal is an effective, democratic government in Iraq, then that government has to have a monopoly on violence. As long as it allows militias like Sadr's to dominate neighborhoods and terrorize citizens, Iraq will be a failed state. Some commentators seem to instantaneously resort to moral relativism. Undoubtedly innocent people have been and will continue to be hurt in this operation. Maliki is certainly no saint, and he still has some tests ahead of him before we can safely conclude he is a true democrat. But taking on Sadr is progress. And we must keep in mind the larger issues: would you rather see a law-abiding government in Iraq that can protect its own people, or would you prefer a violent opportunist like Sadr in power? Which is in Iraq's interest? In other words, Maliki isn't perfect, but isn't Sadr far worse? How would the Sunnis react if Sadr somehow came into power?

Posted by: DHobgood | May 13, 2008 2:50 PM

"In other words, Maliki isn't perfect, but isn't Sadr far worse?"

Y'know, we keep hearing this. But every time I hear someone beating this "Ooh! Scary Sadr!" I wonder:

1. Sadr is a fundamentalist Shiite Muslim. Ali Sistani is a fundamentalist Shiite Muslim. Many of the Dawa and ISCI partisans we are currently backing are Shiite Muslims. Why is Sadr Bad and the other 12er Shiites Good?

2. Sadr has a militia. ISCI has a militia (Badr). The Sunnis now have a militia (Sons of Iraq/CLC/whatever). The Kurds have a militia (peshmerga). Why is the Sadr militia Bad and the other militias Good?

3. Sadr doesn't like the occupation. Dawa and ISCI like the occupation (it keeps them in power). The Kurds like the occupation (sorta - it keeps Baghdad from reasserting control of the north). The SOI/CLC/whatever like the occupation - it pays them. Could this be why Sadr is BAD and the others are GOOD?

So "Taking on Sadr" would be progress if the Malikists were then willing to take on the peshmerga, the SOI and the Badr. But they're not; in fact, they pretend that the Badr IS the IA, pretend that the peshmerga would fight for Baghdad if the government there revoked Kurdish autonomy and demanded soverignty over a unified Iraq, pretend that they will fold in the SOI when there's no real evidence this will happen.

Like I say - if we want to divide and rule, if we want to pick a proxy and send them out to slay our enemies, if we want to rule whatever semi-functional "state" is left in the land between the rivers, fine. Let's make it our policy, jack up taxes to pay for it, institute a draft to provide the forces and become the Rome or Britian of the 21st Century Middle East.

But let's not pretend that what's going on here is some sort of Iraqi Whiskey Rebellion where we're Rochambeau and Maliki is George Washington. So far there isn't a single Iraqi pol that has shown themselves to be a "true democrat" and, given the loathsome Ottoman heritage and the subsequent history of coups, betrayals, intrigue and despotism it'd be a miracle if ANY "true democrat" survives anywhere near power in that land.

Producing a peaceful, multisectarian democracy out of a despotism requires multiple favorable circumstances and the presence of great leadership. Instead Iraq has a brutal internal war and the grabby paws of a legion of exiles, theocrats and gang leaders. Spin that as a "law-abiding government protecting its people" as you will, it's difficult to see how our picking one gang of robbers over another is going to result in anything but a robbers' roost.

Posted by: FDChief | May 13, 2008 3:41 PM

"How would the Sunnis react if Sadr somehow came into power?"

Probably about the same way they did when the Shiite coalition came to power: start a revolution. Except the official Sadrist position - Iraq for Iraqis, U.S. and Iran out - is closer to the Sunni mujs' beliefs than the official Iran-cozy position of the Malikists. So if you're trying to make this a rationale for "let's smash the Sadrists", mmmm...not so much.

Posted by: FDChief | May 13, 2008 3:45 PM

"If the goal is an effective, democratic government in Iraq, then that government has to have a monopoly on violence."

No. If the goal is an effective, democratic government in Iraq then that country needs peace, prosperity, an educated, middle-class electorate, a poltical system that guarentees minority rights and the orderly transfer of power, widespread trust in public governanace and the existence of and faith in the rule of law, a nonpolitical military and police, the love of Jesus and four cases of MREs.

Having a monopoly on violence simply assures that whoever is in power can crush their opposition.

Without all the above, having a "monopoly on violence" is called "despotism".

Posted by: FDChief | May 13, 2008 3:49 PM

"Undoubtedly innocent people have been and will continue to be hurt in this operation."

Really? But sacrifices must be made, eh? No omlettes without breaking eggs? The Enemies of The State must be chastized, no matter the Cost? War is Peace? Freedom is Slavery?

Jesus wept.

Posted by: FDChief | May 13, 2008 3:53 PM

DHobgood: just in case you think I'm picking on you (I'm not, I'm picking on your Iraq policy), here's George Will to John McCain on McCain's version of your "Sadr Bad, Hulk smash!" plan for success in Iraq:

"Your goal in Iraq is "success," which you define as "the establishment of a generally peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state." Would a "generally" peaceful, stable, prosperous but authoritarian state be unacceptable? Or a mildly prosperous and "generally" stable state but one with simmering violence--which describes a number of nations today, including Iraq? Does the task of making your four adjectives descriptive of Iraq require and therefore justify more years of military involvement in the suppression of groups that are manifestations of sectarianism, criminality and warlordism? What other nations should we police?"

I'll be the first to agree that having a bunch of nasty militias wandering around is a bad thing. But it's an Iraqi Bad Thing, a Bad Thing that was almost unstoppable from the moment we knocked the Saddam cork off the Iraqi bottle and then proceeded to violate every Phase IV rule in the book. We've had three years longer than it took Washington and von Steuben and company to create the freaking Continental Line. If our Iraqi proxies can't get their own country straightened out now, then when? When do we get to stop borrowing from the Chinese to try and stamp out this tarbaby-on-fire?

Posted by: FDChief | May 13, 2008 4:07 PM

FDC rocks as usual.

DHobgood posts,

"If the goal is an effective, democratic government in Iraq, then that government has to have a monopoly on violence."

I would only add, 'within its own borders' which is the Weberian definition of the state in general, democratic or not. So how exactly does a foreign occupation fit in with that?

It doesn't, which means that one of the fundamental requirements for your new Iraqi state, democratic or otherwise, is for the end of foreign occupation, or even presence if that in some way puts the state's monopoly of violence into question.

Looks like you've joined the opposition.

Posted by: seydlitz89 | May 13, 2008 4:41 PM

FDChief, for these guys, the Shah, Somoza, Pinochet, Mubarak, Musharraf, Malaki and Bush are the George Washingtons of our era.

Posted by: srv | May 16, 2008 11:05 PM

Phil --

any truth to the rumors that Sadr City is being cleared out to make room for the planned Green Zone resort/golf course?

Posted by: Charles | May 21, 2008 9:37 AM

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