Iraqi Security Force Operations in Basra
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched Operation Sawlat al-Fursan, or Charge of Knights by ordering 15,000 soldiers to Basra.1 The additional Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) began arriving on March 24th and attacked into the city the next day.2 In support of this effort, Iraqi commanders also enhanced ISF operations in Najaf, Hillah, Diwaniyah, and Wasit.4
Although Prime Minister Maliki claimed the operation in Basra aimed to rid the city of outlaws, the Iraqi Security Forces mainly targeted members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.5 Critics asserted that focusing pressure on the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) posed political risks and threatened security gains. Some stated that by engaging the Mahdi Army and ignoring other Shi’a groups, the Iraqi government signaled its true intentions: to politically isolate Sadr. As one expert observed, “If Maliki had been serious about ending militia rule in Basra, he should also have dealt with the militias of Fadhila and the Badr brigades.”6 Furthermore, many concluded that actions in Basra might prompt Sadr to end his cease-fire, an action that could severely destabilize Iraq.7
Although Sadr did not lift the cease-fire, he refused disarmament orders and violence erupted in Baghdad, Kut, Diwaniyah, Hillah, Amara, and Nasiriyah.8 These hostilities, paired with the ISF’s inability to combat Shiite militias intensified outcries against Operation Charge of the Knights. Many U.S. and Iraqi officials insisted that the mission was badly timed and poorly conceived.9 Indeed, many issues arose as the Iraqi army and police engaged Basra’s heavily armed and fortified JAM and rogue JAM fighters.
First, the ISF failed to advance against bold raids conducted by Shiite insurgents that attacked quickly and then retreated to their strongholds throughout Basra.10 Iraqi officers also indicated that the militia had “heavier and more sophisticated weapons” than the ISF.11 According to eyewitness reports, Mahdi fighters fired mortars, rocket propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and sniper rifles at seemingly helpless Iraqi army units.”12 Based on these difficulties, U.S. and British officials had to reinforce the ISF with coalition ground troops, helicopters, and air strikes.13 Second, because Maliki “repeatedly tied his personal reputation to the assault’s success,” the continued defiance of Sadr and Shiite militias called the Prime Minister’s authority and competence into question.14 Although he initially issued a seventy-two hour ultimatum calling for Mahdi army members to lay down their weapons, he had to extend the deadline to April 8th and offer “monetary rewards in exchange for arms.”15 The degree of staff planning for Operation Charge of the Knights also prompted significant concern.
Frustrated American officials claimed that the Iraqi government overestimated the ISF’s abilities, “underestimated the scale of resistance,” and failed to establish detailed and coordinated plans.16 Despite prior coordination with American leaders in Baghdad, Maliki’s impulsive thrust into Basra left Iraqi and Coalition forces without time to prepare and mass forces before mounting the attack.17 Given the historical lack of U.S. and British presence in Basra as well as the limits of Iraqi logistics and command and control, Operation Charge of the Knights would have been difficult under far better circumstances.18 The GOI’s faulty planning and coordination complicated the mission even further and contributed to perceptions that Mahdi militiamen completely defeated the Iraqi Security Forces.19
Corruption and desertion within the ISF underscored these negative perceptions and contributed to Operation Charge of the Knights’ many failures. Approximately 1,300 ISF refused to fight in Basra.20 There is also evidence that numerous Iraqi soldiers and policemen surrendered their weapons to Shiite militiamen.21 These actions further diminished the ISF’s reputation and highlighted the Iraqi government’s inability to command the loyalty of its military forces.22
Although Prime Minister Maliki’s attempt to clear Shiite militants from Basra was, by no means, a success, it was not an entirely unmitigated disaster. Before the operation began, the ISF did display an enhanced ability to project force in response to GOI directives. As Operation Charge of the Knight’s has continued, the ISF have managed to conduct several successful missions and have begun clearing militia strongholds.23 During a raid on April 14th, Iraqi soldiers also freed Richard Butler, a British journalist that militiamen kidnapped two months earlier.24 Nonetheless, Iraqi forces and the Government of Iraq must develop in many sectors before undertaking any additional major operations. Hopefully, the hard lessons learned in Basra will encourage continued efforts to improve planning, coordination, command, and control.