Is it my imagination, or did the New-Old Iraqi Army cut back its activity during December, only to crank the voltage back up since the “surge” announcement? Since then, we’ve seen the resumption of mass-casualty bombings, the seriously weird assassination of a complete US Army Civil Affairs team in Najaf by men posing as either US troops or mercenaries, and a positive shower of downed aircraft. So far this year, there have been the losses of a Moldovan Antonov-26 near Balad on a staff run for KBR, a Blackhawk near Baqubah which was hit with a SAM whilst carrying a number of senior officers, a mercenary Hughes-500 responding to an attack on a State Department convoy, and now another US attack heli, type unknown, shot down outside Najaf.
A Reuters reporter at an army checkpoint about 1.5 km (one mile) from the fighting said he heard a burst of machinegun fire and saw smoke coming from a U.S. attack helicopter circling above the battle. He said the helicopter, which had been rocketing the militants, came down and smoke was rising from the site. It was not immediately clear whether it had crashed, he said.
Police in Najaf, seat of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite clerics, refused comment on the fighting and the U.S. military said they did not issue statements on ongoing operations. An officer in the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division in Najaf, who declined to be named, said he had also heard a report of a downed helicopter. He said the gunmen were dressed in camouflage uniforms and appeared to be well organised and fighting in small formations.
Governor Asaad Abu Gilel told Reuters the authorities had uncovered a plot by the fighters to kill some of the clerics on Monday, the climax of the Shi’ite mourning ritual of Ashura, a high point of the Shi’ite religious calendar. The Reuters reporter said he could hear intense gunfire. He said he had earlier seen two wounded soldiers with a dead comrade in the back of a truck outside an Iraqi military base.
He said troop reinforcements from the nearby city of Hilla were on their way and he had heard radio communications in which soldiers in the midst of the fighting were asking for fresh ammunition supplies. Abu Gilel said the militants, who included foreign fighters, had arrived in the city disguised as pilgrims in recent days and based themselves in the orchards, which he said had been bought three or four months ago by supporters of Saddam Hussein.
Uniforms, well organised small-unit tactics? Sounds like NOIA to me. They seem to be pushing at Najaf quite hard, presumably in an attempt to stage some sort of really awful massacre during Ashura that would drive the Sadr movement and SCIRI/Dawa into mutual conflict. Sunni insurgent violence has been the best recruiting sergeant for both groups, but SCIRI’s relationship with the US and position in government means that they come off worst compared with the Sadrists.
But more importantly, I reckon that the Americans are now in the position of the man who gave the powder to the bear. He rolled it up in a sheet of paper, dipped one end in honey, and pushed it into the bear’s cage…but the bear blew first. Their first 3,200 reinforcements are in, but the insurgent operational tempo has cranked up much faster, and it’s quite possible that they will continue to out-escalate the Americans, simply because the force plan won’t provide troops faster than the insurgents can.
Consider this Seattle Times story, which deals with an apparent agreement with tribal leaders in Ramadi to provide a police force. Apparently the recruitment was a great success, in December. I wonder how it’s going now? I have a little theory here. We know the Baker-Hamilton commission met with Iraqi politicians, including folk like Tariq al-Hashemi and others from the National Accord who have good contacts with NOIA. Now, the Baker-Hamilton plan would have suited the NOIA’s minimum political objectives rather well, by reaffirming Sunni rights, insisting on a pan-Arab role in the final negotiations, and getting the US Army off the streets. That was rather why it was a good plan.
It looks to me like they cut back their activities over Christmas, whilst it was on the table. But now, with this explicitly rejected, and the talk of “the 80 per cent solution” and such..well, all that keeps it from being a betrayal is that there was no explicit offer, at least not that we know of. More likely, the message communicated is that the Americans need a punch in the mouth before they will talk sense. Worse, the obvious counter-strategy to a “tilt to the Shia” is to provoke the Sadrists, thus cutting the 60 per cent of Shia in half.
Like Spinal Tap, their amps go up to 11. And their DShKa machine guns go up to 8,000 feet.
Update: Well, well, well. NOIA? Turns out the story is a whole lot weirder.
NAJAF, Iraq, Jan 28 (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces killed 250 gunmen from a Muslim cult in a battle involving U.S. tanks and helicopters near the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf on Sunday, Iraqi police, army and political sources said.
The day-long battle was continuing after nightfall, Colonel Ali Nomas told Reuters. A Reuters reporter on the scene saw several American tanks and other armoured vehicles arriving at the site of the battle, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad. A U.S. helicopter was earlier shot down in the fighting, Iraq security sources said. The U.S. military declined comment. The Reuters reporter saw a helicopter come down trailing smoke. An Iraqi army source said some of the dead wore headbands declaring themselves to be a “Soldier of Heaven”.
The fighting began as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converged on the other main Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, 70 km (40 miles) to the north of Najaf, for the climax of the annual Shi’ite rite of Ashura.
Shi’ite political sources said the gunmen appeared to be both Sunni Arabs and Shi’ites loyal to Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni, whom they described as an apocalyptic cult leader convinced he leads the vanguard of the Mahdi — a messiah-like figure in Islam whose coming heralds the start of perfect world justice…
The governor of Najaf province said Iraqi troops fought a day-long battle with 200 or more Sunni gunmen, including foreign fighters, holed up in orchards on the northern outskirts of the city, seat of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite clerics. Governor Asaad Abu Gilel told Reuters the authorities had uncovered a plot by the gunmen to kill some of the clerics on Monday, to coincide with the climax of Ashura. “There is a conspiracy to kill the clergy on the 10th day of Muharram,” Najaf governor Abu Gilel said, referring to the day of the Muslim calendar on Monday.
Didn’t see that one coming, did I? A cross-sectarian apocalyptic cult that wears uniforms, shoots straight, and wants to wipe out the Shia Hawza. Fuck. Iraq-it’s the weird that just keeps on weirding. Mind you, am I the only one to think – if this guy can get the Sunni and Shia to follow him and sort out their close-order drills…that’s not a cult, that’s an exit strategy!