Recent Operations against Special Groups and JAM in Central and Southern Iraq


On Tuesday March 25, 2008, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched a security offensive to restore stability and law in Basra province by wresting control of the city from illegal Shi’a militias and criminal groups.  Basra had become a haven for militia and criminal activity, especially in the wake of the British withdrawal from the city center in December 2007. Rival Shi’a militias, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia, have since been engaged in a violent and protracted power struggle;<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[i]<!--[endif]--> and drugs, weapons, and oil smuggling rings have also thrived.


While the Iraqi Security Forces had been planning a multi-phased operation in Basra, for reasons not yet known, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched the offensive much earlier than many Coalition and Iraqi commanders had expected and before many of the ISF reinforcements had even arrived.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[ii]<!--[endif]--> In the days that followed, as Iraqi Army and Police units sought to oust Jaysh al-Mahdi militias from many of their strongholds in Basra, gunfights and violent clashes broke out across the city. At that time, it became clear that the Mahdi Army—with the help of Iranian-trained, funded, and armed cells known as Special Groups—was deeply entrenched in many neighborhoods of Basra.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[iii]<!--[endif]--> The Iraqi Security Forces faced much tougher resistance than Maliki had expected. As clashes between JAM gunmen and government forces continued, Iraqi reinforcements, Coalition air assets, and even U.S. Special Forces joined the Basra offensive.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[iv]<!--[endif]--> The fighting in Basra also prompted clashes between government security forces and Shi’a extremists across southern Iraq and in Baghdad.


Finally, after five days of intense fighting, Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his militia to stand down.  His March 30 ceasefire came after negotiations in Iran with representatives from the other main Shi’a political parties, Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).  Interestingly, the deal was brokered by the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard-Quds Force, the organization responsible for backing Special Groups in Iraq.<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[v]<!--[endif]-->  Days after the ceasefire, it was reported that much of the violence in Basra had subsided, and that the “Iraqi forces now controlled central Basra and its northern border, and that they had begun moving into militia strongholds north of the city.”<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[vi]<!--[endif]--> Despite the formal end of hostilities, Coalition airstrikes and Iraqi Ground Forces have continued to target Special Groups members in Basra and in the surrounding areas. <!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[vii]<!--[endif]-->  


As the dust settles Basra, the outcome of the offensive and the state of the enemy remain unclear. At the same time, the clashes that erupted in Baghdad and elsewhere across southern Iraq in response to the Basra offensive are quite revealing. Indeed, recent events in Baghdad, the Five Cities area, and Dhi Qar province are important to grasp not only because they explain the nature of the enemy system in southern Iraq but also because they demonstrate the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces.

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<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[i]<!--[endif]--> Militias from the Sadrist Trend, the Fadila party, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) have been locked in a violent fight for control of the city. Elsewhere in southern Iraq, the Sadrists and ISCI have vied for control of provincial and city governments. In cities such as Diwaniyah and Kut, Sadr’s militias, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, have battled with ISCI’s Badr militias (who have been incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces). Fadila’s influence is primarily limited to Basra province.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[ii]<!--[endif]--> Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Stephen Farrell, “U.S. Cites Planning Gaps in Iraqi Assault on Basra,” The New York Times, April 3, 2008.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[iii]<!--[endif]--> Ryan Lenz, “Iraq: US airstrike on southern town kills 8; Iraqi, US troops crackdown elsewhere,” Associated Press Worldstream, March 29, 2008.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[iv]<!--[endif]--> Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Stephen Farrell, “U.S. Cites Planning Gaps in Iraqi Assault on Basra,” The New York Times, April 3, 2008.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[v]<!--[endif]--> Warren P. Strobel and Leila Fadel, “Iranian who brokered Iraqi peace is on U.S. terrorist watch list,” McClatchy Newspapers, March 31, 2008.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[vi]<!--[endif]--> Erica Goode, “Normal Life Starts to Return as Iraqi Forces Regain Control in Basra,” The New York Times, April 3, 2008.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[vii]<!--[endif]--> Multi-National Force – Iraq Press Release A080403c, “Coalition forces conduct airstrike in Basra, two criminals killed,” April 3, 2008; Multi-National Corps – Iraq Press Release No. 20080404-5, “ISF kill 7 criminal members, detain 16 in 3 separate operations in Basra,” Multi-National Corps – Iraq PAO, April 4, 2008; Multi-National Force – Iraq Press Release A080404a, “Coalition forces conduct airstrike in al-Halaf, six criminals killed,” April 4, 2008.