Shiites and the US Army in Karbala and Sadr City
Ken Dilanian of Knight Ridder has a piece on how the 37th Armored Regiment’s 1st Battalion fought an ideal battle in the Shiite holy city of Karbala against the Mahdi Army, defeating them without damaging the shrines of Imam Husayn and Abu’l-Fadil Abbas.
The article depends very heavily on interviews with the battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Garry Bishop. It is not wrong as far as it goes. But the article is an example of how the US military has lost Iraq. They just don’t understand.
Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army were never popular in Karbala and had no local grass roots to speak of. The Mahdi Army fighters there were mostly outsiders from East Baghdad or other Shiite cities. They had made a concerted effort to take over the shrine of Imam Husayn last summer, but were checkmated by forces loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The strange decision of the Americans to try to arrest Muqtada provoked his people to launch an insurgency throughout the south, and it is my suspicion that their Shiite enemies, like the Badr Corps and some tribal levies, stepped aside at that point.
So, the Americans wouldn’t have had to fight the Mahdi Army in Karbala at all if they hadn’t foolishly tried to arrest Muqtada. Once they did that, a lot of Shiites rallied to Muqtada’s side, including a lot of local police.
The US military fairly easily wiped the mat with a bunch of untrained ghetto youths who had little more than machine guns and some rocket propelled grenades. They killed about 400 in Karbala. But they were lucky to be fighting the Mahdi Army in a place where it lacked deep support to begin with. Unlike in Fallujah, they did not have to take on the entire city to take on the Mahdi Army. Sistani and his supporters were implicitly on Lt. Col. Bishop’s side.
While it is true that the US resisted the temptation to destroy the shrine of Imam Husayn (the beloved, martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad), they did major damage to an old and revered mosque that the Mahdi Army had made a base. The US military doesn’t seem to understand that it gets no points for not destroying the shrine of Imam Husayn. That would be like our being grateful to some Muslim army in Rome that it forebore to level the Basilica of St. Peter. The deed is unthinkable, especially at the hands of foreign troops, and so the avoiding of it inspires no gratitude.
On the other hand, the US troops did get graded down by Shiites for fighting in Karbala at all (they even called down air strikes on the city). The fighting there was a form of desecration that inspried rage at the US among Shiites throughout the world, as well as in Iraq. Moreover, even though local Karbala’is don’t have the time of day for poor ghetto youth gang members like Mahdi Army, no Iraqi Shiite wants to see American Christians and Jews (that is how they think of them) killing Iraqi Shiites and threatening to kill a scion of the House of the Prophet.
In the PR battle, the odds were so stacked against the US military that it could never have won in Karbala. The military victory there cost the US enormous good will among Shiites in Iraq and abroad. I don’t know when the raw feelings will subside. As for it being orderly now in Karbala, sure. The US called off its hit on Muqtada, and it killed 400 fighters. But it was orderly in Karbala on March 31 before Mr. Bremer stupidly went after Muqtada. So all that was achieved was a status quo ante from a security point of view. And the public relations losses were colossal.
The article would have been better if the author had remembered about the air strikes and the destruction of the Mukhayyam mosque, or the big demonstrations in Bahrain, Lebanon and Iran by outraged Shiites. In other words, the piece lacked a larger context in which the operation was not a model success but a massive political failure, If you don’t have a yardstick for what is a success and what is a failure, you can’t make any progress.
A much better sense of the situation for the US army among the Shiites can be had from Philip Robertson’s piece in Salon.com (it is worth the day pass for anyone who does not subscribe). A couple short quotes:
‘ Now, after months of continuous fighting, young men in the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment have experienced some of the highest casualties of any unit in post-invasion Iraq, with a number of soldiers receiving multiple Purple Hearts. Two are still on duty. There’s a fatalistic joke going around the barracks that goes, “If you get five Purple Hearts, you get to go home.” More than 30 members of Alpha Company have been wounded in action, and those who haven’t been describe miraculous near-misses outside the base. For Alpha Company soldiers, these are bad odds, and they get worse in light of the current administration’s policy — fewer U.S. soldiers in Iraq means greater stress for those sent into it, soldiers out on constant patrols, working vast areas of operation . . .
The vehicles in the Camp Eagle graveyard tell part of the Alpha Company story: Humvees with blown-out windshields, direct hits with rocket propelled grenades on windshields and doors, two burned Bradleys, other Humvees destroyed by roadside bombs. Rocket impacts give the steel a moth-eaten look. The million-dollar equipment is ragged, pushed to the edge from overuse. A number of the soldiers from Alpha Company who were in them during the attacks talk about recurring nightmares, trouble sleeping. Butler said he still had dreams about April 4 and the other bad days that followed. I asked Butler if Iraq was what he expected. “I didn’t think it would be like this. No one is going through what we are going through,” he told me.
On the morning of June 28, the Coalition Provisional Authority announced the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq, dissolving itself. It didn’t amount to much beyond a political abstraction for Butler. The only development that matters to him is the cease-fire. Nothing else has changed — he still has to take his platoon out on patrol, he still has to worry about an armed insurgency and ambushes. “They just don’t want us here,” Butler said. “I hope that all of us make it back. I pray that we all do, but I don’t think it could get any worse. This is worse. I’ll do everything I can to bring all the soldiers back. Anything.” ‘