U.S. Cites Planning Gaps In Iraqi Assault On Basra

U.S. Cites Planning Gaps In Iraqi Assault On Basra
April 3rd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: U.S. Cites Planning Gaps In Iraqi Assault On Basra

U.S. Cites Planning Gaps In Iraqi Assault On Basra
New York Times
April 3, 2008
Pg. 1
By Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Stephen Farrell
This article was reported by Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Stephen Farrell and written by Mr. Gordon.
BAGHDAD — Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker first learned of the Iraqi plan on Friday, March 21: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki would be heading to Basra with Iraqi troops to bring order to the city.
But the Iraqi operation was not what the United States expected. Instead of methodically building up their combat power and gradually stepping up operations against renegade militias, Mr. Maliki’s forces lunged into the city, attacking before all of the Iraqi reinforcements had even arrived. By the following Tuesday, a major fight was on.
“The sense we had was that this would be a long-term effort: increased pressure gradually squeezing the Special Groups,” Mr. Crocker said in an interview, using the American term for Iranian-backed militias. “That is not what kind of emerged.”
“Nothing was in place from our side,” he added. “It all had to be put together.”
The Bush administration has portrayed the Iraqi offensive in Basra as a “defining moment” — a compelling demonstration that an Iraqi government that has long been criticized for inaction has both the will and means to take on renegade militias.
The operation indicates that the Iraqi military can quickly organize and deploy forces over considerable distances. Two Iraqi C-130s and several Iraqi helicopters were also involved in the operation, an important step for a military that is still struggling to develop an air combat ability.
But interviews with a wide range of American and military officials also suggest that Mr. Maliki overestimated his military’s abilities and underestimated the scale of the resistance. The Iraqi prime minister also displayed an impulsive leadership style that did not give his forces or that of his most powerful allies, the American and British military, time to prepare.
“He went in with a stick and he poked a hornet’s nest, and the resistance he got was a little bit more than he bargained for,” said one official in the multinational force in Baghdad who requested anonymity. “They went in with 70 percent of a plan. Sometimes that’s enough. This time it wasn’t.”
As the Iraqi military and civilian casualties grew and the Iraqi planning appeared to be little more than an improvisation, the United States mounted an intensive military and political effort to try to turn around the situation, according to accounts by Mr. Crocker and several American military officials in Baghdad and Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two senior American military officers — a member of the Navy Seals and a Marine major general — were sent to Basra to help coordinate the Iraqi planning, the military officials said. Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were pressed into service as combat advisers while air controllers were positioned to call in airstrikes on behalf of beleaguered Iraqi units. American transport planes joined the Iraqis in ferrying supplies to Iraqi troops.
In Baghdad, Mr. Crocker lobbied senior officials in the Iraqi government, who complained that they had been excluded from Mr. Maliki’s decision-making on Basra, to back the prime minister’s effort there.
“I stressed the point that this was a moment of national crisis, and they had to think nationally,” Mr. Crocker said. “Because nobody should think that failure in Basra is going to benefit any element of the Iraqi community. The response was good. I have not found any element of the Iraqi government that will admit to being consulted.”
Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, lies atop vast oil reserves and is a strategically situated port on the Shatt al-Arab waterway controlling Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf. Predominantly Shiite, it has suffered from fighting among numerous Shiite militias, tribal forces and criminal gangs struggling for control of its lucrative smuggling and oil revenues. Even some of the Iraqi police are believed to be under the influence of militia groups.
British troops, who provided the main allied military presence in the province after the 2003 invasion, withdrew from the city center last September and formally handed Basra over to Iraqi control on Dec. 16, moving to an “overwatch” position at the airport outside the city center.
There has been growing concern with the Iraqi government about the disorder in the city. In recent weeks, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, a senior Iraqi commander in Basra, proposed that additional forces be sent.
Prompted by this suggestion, a detailed plan was being developed by American and Iraqi officials, which involved the establishment of combat outposts in the city and the deployment of Iraqi SWAT teams, Iraqi Special Forces and Interior Ministry units, as well as Iraqi brigades.
That plan was the subject of a March 21 evening meeting that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq, convened with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Mr. Maliki’s national security adviser. At the end of that session, General Petraeus was asked to meet with Mr. Maliki the next morning. The prime minister, it seemed, had his own ideas on how to deal with Basra and planned to travel to the city to oversee the implementation of his plan.
“Effectively, much of the city was under militia control and had been for some time,” Mr. Crocker said. “Maliki kept hearing this along with some pretty graphic descriptions of militia excesses and just decided, ‘I am going to go down there and take care of this.’ I think for him it was a Karbala moment.” Last August, Mr. Maliki rushed to Karbala after an outbreak of Shiite-on-Shiite violence, fired the police commander and oversaw the successful effort to restore order to the city.
One American intelligence officer in Washington, however, had a somewhat different interpretation of the prime minister’s motivations. While restoring order was his stated goal, he asserted, the Iraqi leader was also eager to weaken the Mahdi Army and the affiliated political party of the renegade cleric Moktada al-Sadr before provincial elections in the south that are expected to be to be held this year. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political party and militia that are rivals to Mr. Sadr, his party and his militia, form a crucial part of Mr. Maliki’s political coalition.
When Mr. Maliki met with General Petraeus on the morning of March 22, he indicated that his goal was to take on the “criminals and gang leaders” in Basra, according to an account of the meeting by an American official. Mr. Maliki explained that the operation would be an Iraqi affair but that he might need air support from the Americans.
He said that he was going to meet with sheiks, religious figures and other local leaders, taking advantage of the additional leverage he hoped to gain by sending in troops, fostering economic development programs and sending teams of judges to try to punish corrupt and violent behavior.
“It was a unilateral decision by Maliki,” said an American official familiar with the session. “It was a fait accompli.”
For the Americans, the timing was not good. The American military had little interest in seeing a hastily conceived operation that might open a new front and tempt Mr. Sadr to annul his cease-fire, which had contributed to the striking reduction in attacks over the past several months. Mr. Crocker and General Petraeus were also scheduled to testify to Congress the next month on the fragile political and security gains achieved in Iraq.
According to one American official, General Petraeus conveyed the message that while the decision was in the hands of the Iraqi government, “we made a lot of gains in the past six to nine months that you’ll be putting at risk.”
But if Mr. Maliki was determined to act, General Petraeus advised him not to rush into a fight without carefully sizing up the situation and making adequate preparations, the official said. Sending a couple of brigades of the Iraqi Army, Special Forces and Interior Ministry forces was a complicated undertaking that under the best of circumstances would test the Iraqi logistical and command and control system.
The Iraqi forces started to arrive March 24. The attack into Basra began just a day later. Reports from Basra indicated that the militias were deeply entrenched. Adding to the problems, the Iraqis did not trust the British and were not including them in their planning, according to a senior American officer.
Faced with a fight that had escalated far beyond what the United States had anticipated, American commanders took several steps to support the Iraqis. Rear Adm. Edward G. Winters, a member of the Seals with experience in special operations, was sent March 25 to lead a lower-ranking American liaison team that had gone to Basra with Mr. Maliki.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the day-to-day commander of American and allied forces in Iraq, went to Basra on March 27 to survey the situation. The next day, his senior deputy, Maj. Gen. George J. Flynn, was sent to the Basra Operations Center, a command center that was supposed to oversee the military operations. General Flynn, a Marine officer, commanded a team of American planners and other personnel.
The United States also sent air controllers to call in airstrikes on behalf of Iraqi units and moved additional helicopters and drones down to Basra and nearby Tallil.
There were not enough military advisers for all the Iraqi reinforcements who were rushed south. So the United States took a company from the First Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. It was divided into platoons, which were augmented with Air Force controllers and assigned to help the Iraqi forces.
The United States helped the Iraqis ferry in supplies by C-130. The Iraqis, however, also began to fly in supplies and troops using their two C-130s. More than 500 Iraqi replacement soldiers were moved by air while an additional brigade was sent by ground. The Iraqis also flew Huey and Hip multimission helicopters.
Taking a page out of the American counterinsurgency doctrine, the United States encouraged the Iraqis to distribute aid and mount job programs to try to win over the Basra population.
To ease the distribution of supplies, American officials from the Agency for International Development flew with Iraqi officials to Basra to work with United Nations officials. The Americans also encouraged Mr. Maliki to proceed with his plan to seek an alliance with the Shiite tribes, as the Americans had done with Sunni tribes in the so-called Anbar Awakening.
“We strongly encouraged him to use his most substantial weapon, which is money, to announce major jobs programs, Basra cleanup, whatnot,” Mr. Crocker said. “And to do what he decided to do on his own: pay tribal figures to effectively finance an awakening for Basra.”
Michael R. Gordon and Stephen Farrell reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.

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