Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Bill Roggio, the editor of The Long War Journal who has embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is the president of Public Multimedia Inc., a non-profit seeking to improve coverage and understanding of the Long War.
FP: Bill Roggio, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Roggio: Hello Jamie, and thank you for inviting me.
FP: There were various news reports that stated that U.S. and the Iraqi Security Forces' Basrah offensive against Sadr was a failure. I would like to discuss with you how accurate those reports were. But first, tell us what this offensive was about and against whom. There are illegal Shia militias and criminal gangs operating in Basrah right? And all of this is further complicated because this present confrontation is Shia vs. Shia, correct?
Roggio: The Iraqi government clearly was attempting to take on the Mahdi Army and the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups in Basrah, as it has done elsewhere in the South. There are certainly political rivalries at play in the intra-Shia conflict, but the fact is that the Mahdi Army conducts attacks on Iraqi and US forces and Iraqi civilians. Its Mahdi Army operates outside the law, and was attempting to fill the security void in Basrah. There will always be a level of corruption and criminal activity in Basrah, but the Mahdi Army exceeded the normal level of graft and moved to take control of the city.
FP: So what about the news reports that indicated that the U.S. and the Iraqi Security Forces' Basra offensive against Sadr was a failure?
Roggio: The reports of the death of the Iraqi Army in Basrah were widely exaggerated. The Iraqi Army and police met some stiff resistance in the opening days, but the media jumped to call this failure. Prime Minister Maliki did not plan well for the operation and jumped the gun on its execution by months (it was to be carried out in July). An Iraqi Army brigade fresh out of basic training was thrown into the fight and cracked - about 500 troops "underperformed or deserted" according to the New York Times, and 400 police deserted. But the other estimated 44,500 Iraqi security forces in Basrah held.
The Iraqi command rushed in reinforcements - about 1 Division or 7,000 troops, and by the weekend the Iraqi security forces began to get the upper hand. Then Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army to leave the streets. By the end of the fighting, more than 500 Mahdi fighters were killed, about 1000 wounded and another 300 captured in the fighting in Basrah, Baghdad, and the great South, where the military performed well against the Mahdi Army.
FP: Tell us a bit about the confusion in the Mahdi/Sadrist ranks.
Roggio: By the weekend, my sources in Southern Iraq as well as Time Magazine were reporting the Mahdi Army in Basrah were running low on munitions and other supplies, and were beginning to be demoralized. These factors must have played a role in Sadr's calling his Mahdi Army off the streets. Then, the Maliki government made a bold move that set the Mahdi Army and the Sadrists off balance. It threatened to disallow the Sadrist movement from participating in the upcoming provincial elections if Sadr did nit disband the Mahdi Army. The Sadrists were caught flat-footed, complained about their political isolation, and began to issue conflicting statements on disbanding the MAhdi Army.
FP: Have there been any deals between Maliki and Sadr?
Roggio: The Sadrist spokesmen claim a deal was cut but Maliki and members of his staff vigorously deny this. There is no evidence a deal was cut, and the Iraqi military is still carrying out attacks on Mahdi forces.
FP: What role is Iran playing? This whole face-off revealed Iranian military intervention in Iraq to be a given, right?
Roggio: To streamline operations in Iraq, Iran's Qods Force established a unified command, called the Ramazan Corps, and split Iraq into three roughly geographical regions. I obtained a detailed description of the Ramazan Corps' command and control network, storage and distribution facilities, training camps, and ratlines – or supply lines – into Iraq last fall.
The Ramazan Corps is a military command with senior Qods Force generals in charge. They direct the flow of weapons, cash, and the deadly rockets, mortars, and explosively formed projectiles into the hands of the Special Groups working in Iraq. The Ramazan Corps also brings Iraqi fighters in Iran to train them, and runs training camps inside Iraq as well.
The Times Online just released information that the Ramazan Corps "were operating at a tactical command level with the Shi'ite militias fighting Iraqi security forces" during the recent fighting in Basrah. "Some were directing operations on the ground." This should come as no surprise to anyone following Iranian activities inside Iraq or have an understanding of the Ramazan Corps. Iran is fighting a thinly veiled, undeclared war against both the Iraqi people and the United States.
FP: So please crystallize for us the success that the U.S. achieved in this recent move.
Roggio: From a US perspective, the Mahdi Army is the premiere instrument of Iran and its Qods Force. The Mahdi Army setback is a direct blow to Iran. The US has patiently pursued a strategy to divide and conquer the Mahdi Army, and we are now seeing the fruits of that effort. Iran has lost face and has exposed itself as a supporter of the insurgency in Iraq.
FP: How big is the problem of the terrorists’ infiltration of Iraqi Security Forces?
Roggio: There certainly is an infiltration issue, but this seems to be a far greater problem with police that the Army. In Basrah, 400 of the 16,000 police either defected to Mahdi or abandoned their posts. This equates to 2.5 percent of the force. The reporting indicated the police is riddled with Mahdi influence, but the numbers don't seem to match. Conducting operations like the one in Basrah go far in exposing the level of infiltration - it is the best way to find out who exactly is loyal. The military and police must prosecute those who defected to the fullest extent of the law - make an example out of them. Maliki and his aides and military officers indicated this would happen.
FP: What is the best strategy for the U.S. and the Iraqi government to pursue now?
Roggio: The US must be sure not to draw down too quickly, as General Petraeus recommended. The Iraqi police and military still rely on the US for air support, logistics, and advisory role. US combat troops are also on the front lines. The Iraqi government should continue to isolate Sadr and the Mahdi Army and work to reign in militias. It must also work to integrate the Sons of Iraq movements into the security forces as best as possible. Many of the challenges the Iraqi government faces now are more political in nature, such as the Kirkuk issue, passing an oil law, continuing with reconciliation, etc.
FP: Your evaluation of General Petraeus’ testimony?
Roggio: General Petraeus struck the right tone in his testimony to the Senate. While Iraq has seen improvement, the gains can indeed be lost by drawing down too quickly. If the biggest news stories coming from the testimony are gaffs from Senators McCain and Kennedy, then Petraeus was successful in cementing his control of Iraqi policy and strategy until President Bush's term expires in January 2009. He is a masterful politician as well as a shrewd, intelligent general.
FP: Overall, the U.S. is winning in Iraq?
Roggio: This is a good question and given the way the Mahdi Army and al Qaeda in Iraq -- the two biggest instigators of sectarian violence, attacks on civilians, and the greatest threats to the Iraqi government and people -- are on the ropes, I'd say we are on the right track. Al Qaeda is being pushed to the fringes in northern Iraq, while the Mahdi Army is politically isolated. The key here is persistence. We have a habit of letting up just as we see some success. A constant guiding hand will be needed in Iraq for years to come before we can talk about victory.
FP: Bill Roggio, thank you for joining us.
Roggio: Thank you very much Jamie, it has been a pleasure.