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Miscalculations leave Basra\'s population in peril

Saleem al-Wazzan
Nuri al-Maliki’s recent military assault in Southern Iraq was aimed, the government said, at the “criminal gangs effectively ruling Basra.” Principally, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army.
14.04.2008  |  Basra

In reality, however, it was the civilian inhabitants and not rogue militants who bore the brunt of Maliki’s charge.

According to Basra’s inhabitants, there was no fore-warning of the attack and when it began, it did so with unprecedented might. Some citizens told Niqash that even during ‘Bush’s war,’ as people call the 2003 American invasion, conditions did not deteriorate as severely as they did during this new offensive.

The surprise of Maliki’s thrust into Basra resulted in a large number of civilian victims. In al-Hussein neighborhood, a stronghold of the Mahdi army, citizens told Niqash that “tens of people were killed and injured and nobody was able to evacuate victims.”

Army forces controlled the entrances of hospitals and abducted members of the Facilities Protection Service (FPS) loyal to the Sadrist bloc detaining them at the investigation unit. At the same time, these forces imposed severe security restrictions on entrants into the hospitals including for the wounded and those wishing to donate blood.

Medical sources at “Al-Sadr Educational Hospital” told Niqash that some of the hospital’s protection members were involved in stockpiling significant quantities of weapons in the hospital and that this was the reason why government troops took control of the facility. Meanwhile, lists with names of Mahdi army fighters were sent to the hospital management and many of the injured fighters were abducted and taken to unknown locations.

According to one nurse, the level of health care deteriorated significantly due to “the absence of a large number of doctors who could not reach the hospital as well as the high number of injured people.”

The deployment of the army in Basra was also accompanied by the phenomenon of army and Mahdi militia snipers across the city. These shooters paralyzed the city. In addition, the continuous attacks on al-Tamimiyah district, another of Sadr’s strongholds in Basra, resulted in many civilian casualties. Victims were buried along al-Khandaq river bank.

Meanwhile, civil order broke down and the number of robberies rose as the campaign progressed. Some sources say that gangs – including those linked to the Mahdi army - robbed the premises of the Iraqi Media Network in Basra, later setting it on fire. Armed militias also robbed a bank and other government buildings in Basra.

As the fight unfolded, many areas in the province suffered power cuts as a result of damaged electrics. There was also a water shortage. The closure of food markets saw the price of food supplies rise as supplies dwindled.

Civil society observers regard the Basra campaign as the “fiercest” fight since the American occupation began. One legal expert and Islamist activist expressed discontent regarding “human rights violations against civilians,” saying that Maliki’s campaign reminded people of the “disciplinary campaigns launched by the former regime against southern cities. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear followers of the Sadr bloc describing Maliki as a ‘new dictator’,” he said.

Logistic mistakes

During the first two days of confrontations, Niqash met a number of exhausted and hungry soldiers. They were begging in nearby houses for food and water. Mijbil, an army soldier, told Niqash that “soldiers were ordered to begin fighting the moment they arrived at the northern parts of Basra without being given the chance to prepare,” adding that “supplies and backing are normally arranged before giving orders to the army to fight a battle.”

Additionally, despite the desire to act with surprise, the military operation was not implemented with secrecy. Several television stations instantly broadcast news on the army deployments as they began. A retired Iraqi officer said that “the absence of secrecy regarding army deployments exposed Iraqi troops to frequent attacks hindering them from achieving progress and from reaching their targets.”

The army officer also revealed a more serious problem which emerged during confrontations: “The loyalty of many soldiers to parties and militias is caused by the fact that these forces have paved the way for the soldiers to become employed by the governmental army.”

In the beginning, the Iraqi government denied soldiers deserted during battle but later it acknowledged the desertion of a number of soldiers, while denying its significance. Subsequent reports confirmed the rebellion and desertion of hundreds of soldiers from the battlefield. Some soldiers refused to obey clear military orders and some of them joined the Mahdi army to fight alongside former comrades.

Two weeks later, at the end of confrontation, the Iraqi government, seeking to maintain military discipline, dismissed 1,300 soldiers and policemen saying that many would be tried by military courts. “Punishing soldiers will not make them more loyal but more afraid,” commented the army officer.

People in Basra today talk about the failure of Maliki’s mission and the inability to defeat the Mahdi army as intended. However, many do believe that he succeeded in bringing down to size some of the gangs and smaller militias. He also succeeded in arresting al-Sayed Youssef, secretary general of Tha’rullah Organization (God’s revenge), who is accused of being an Iranian follower. Additionally, a number of Hizbollah leaders accused of murdering women and of weapons and drug smuggling were arrested, alongside members of oil smuggling gangs. Basra’s main ports were re-placed under government control.

Others give the Operation Knights' Assault credit for at least being able to put an end, however temporarily, to the phenomenon of bearded men in the city’s government offices, all of whom hastily shaved their beards with the arrival of government forces.