More Media Distortions
Hmmm, check this out: yesterday’s New York Times headline on its lead Iraq story was ‘Iraqi Army’s Assault on Basra Stalls Against Shiite Militia in Daylong Battle’, while today’s front-page headline in the same paper is ‘Assault by Iraq on Shiite Forces Stalls in Basra’.
How can something that hasn’t started stall already, and why would this paper essentially use the same headline two days in a row?
We’re still within the 72 hour deadline that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set for Basra’s militants, which means that the real attack (…why does the NYTimes insist on the harsher term “assault”?) hasn’t begun yet. But the NYTimes can write whatever it like in whatever manner it pleases—that’s just one of the many joys of being shamelessly propagandist.
The other funny media distortion of the day is that U.S. Forces are being “drawn into a fight” with Sadr because the U.S. Air Force allegedly ran two bombing raids on targets in Basra. My sources tell me that U.S. air support was called in by Iraqi forces in Kut and Hillah, but not yet in Basra, and that the prime air support in the Basra operation—in terms of surveillance and firepower—has been provided by Iraq’s own nascent air force of about 30 helicopter gunships under General Kemal al-Barzanji. One Iraqi helicopter was reported shot down in Basra late Friday night.
It seems that much of the logistics for Operation Cavalry Charge were delivered through an airlift by the Iraqi Air Force because the military planners assumed that the outlaws would mine transportation routes in and out of Basra with IEDs. According to one source briefed on the campaign’s logistics, the Iraqi Army in Basra (…I think we’re talking about 3 Divisions that are in this fight) is amply supplied and overstocked with food, ammunition and spare parts, indicating that the planners are foreseeing a long campaign.
But if the NYTimes is so iffy about U.S. planes hitting militants in Iraq, then the wise men of that paper should immediately pen an editorial calling on the Bush administration to sell F-16s to Iraq—in the very least they should give them Apaches instead of those crappy, refurbished Ukrainian-made Hinds that they have to fly now.
The other example of how the U.S. military is being “drawn into” a fight with the Mahdi Army are the very limited patrols that were conducted in Sadr City to try to figure out who’s launching those GRAD missiles into the Green Zone. But hey, if going after the bad guys who’re clearly trying to kill and frighten Americans is a red line—a line drawn by the media who’ve interjected themselves as the go-to strategists of any military engagement—then surely the residents of the Green Zone (…and those living nearby, since these missiles are notoriously inaccurate) must accept their fate and be all stoic about it.
But they’re clearly not: nowadays the Green Zone is populated with many greenhorns who have no way of comparing these rocket attacks to what it was like before security got a lot better in Baghdad—it was way worse last summer, for instance—and these naïfs are breaking down into a whimpering hysterics, according to Iraqis watching these freshly-arrived Americans scurry about in abject fear. All it took was a few frights to turn them shell-shocked, and this is a prime force driving the negativity of how Iraq’s recent developments are seen back in Washington.
The other reason why so many have gone so negative is that nobody really knows what’s going on. To start with, the Americans don’t know Basra all that well having had subcontracted handling things down there to the feckless Brits. It isn’t surprising that the British media, influenced as they are by how British diplomats, officers and spooks gauge things, are writing-up Basra’s news with such overblown gloom: those same British officials have their careers on the line since it was their pathetic shortcomings that led to the miserable condition that Basra is in, and it’s in their interest to present the situation as intractable. If Maliki succeeds, then there should be follow-up investigation as to why the British failed in so lucrative an economic prize as Basra and Amara—the two provinces they were tasked with—so those folks who’ve got their reputations on the line want to make darn sure that no one walks away with the impression that Basra is salvageable.
For now, the Brits are hunkered down in Basra Airport, far away from the action, where they’ve been taking attacks—both of the explosive variety in addition to random pilfering and looting—by whatever bunch of bored Basrawi teenagers decide to pick on them on any given day. No wonder they are dismissed by both officials and townspeople in Basra as “wimps” and “sissies”.
So one can safely assume that the British are as clueless as the Americans when it comes to Basra. Moreover, it seems that there was very little joint Iraqi-American coordination going into Operation Cavalry Charge (…translating ‘fursan’ as ‘knights’ as some had done is a bit weird for me since the Arabs throughout their history never really have a knighthood in the European sense) and the Americans certainly did not realize that Maliki will be running the show himself.
“Nibras, get off your high horse, who says that you know any better?”
I don’t, but I happen to be very knowledgeable about the Sadrist movement, having started to study it in 1999, and I can tell you that media accounts of its current strength are hugely exaggerated. Maliki knows this too and that’s why he’s chosen this battle to fight since it is one that he can win.
The Mahdi Army in Basra is only an army in the sense that ‘soldiers’ and ‘cappos’ are rankings in the Cosa Nostra. These organized crime cartels serve many purposes, chief among which is getting rich quick. There’s ample opportunity for mischief in Basra and plenty to pilfer and smuggle: oil, arms, drugs, and whatever happens to fall off a truck leaving the port, after the truck itself had been “re-routed”. So there’s plenty of money and very little law enforcement—kind of like that Scorsese movie, Gangs of New York. Maliki made the calculation that he can take on these cartels and withstand the wrath of the other affiliated Mafiosi ‘familias’ that got unleashed in other parts of Iraq. The criminal syndicate knows that once Operation Cavalry Charge squashes their sweet set-up in Basra, then other pockets of criminality are going to be next, so that’s why they are going to the mattresses.
Yes, it’s that simple.
For example, Kadhimiyah is a city of 500,000, while the militants/gangsters there number no more than 400 according to estimates that I trust. The people of Kadhimiyah are not famed for their bravery, so these 400 kids have run amok today to the point where the local ‘notable’ of the town, Seyyid Hussein al-Sadr (…related to Muqtada al-Sadr but estranged politically) has had to flee his home along with his security detail that number in the hundreds. There are a couple of able officers who have held their own in Kadhimiyah and they now they intend to partner up with the tribal Tamimis, who predominate in villages around Kadhimiyah, to launch a push to smash these gangsters. They are doing this because the sons of a prominent sheikh of the Bani Tamim have thrown in their lot with the Sadrists, and the Iraqi Army officers wants the tribe's involvement so as not to set off a blood feud; this is a sensible local PR strategy. The Sadrists have had one of their most public spokesmen, Hazem al-Araji (…a resident of Canada, by the way), based in Kadhimiyah, but they’ve never managed to expand their base there beyond 3000 people. I remember a demonstration there in the early summer of 2004, at the height of al-Sadr’s popularity that drew no more than 1,500 many of whom had accents from ‘eastern’ Baghdad.
The Iraqi state will make mincemeat of these gangs because that’s what states do when they direct their ample resources and patronage against such blatant manifestations of criminality. Maliki now has the wherewithal to do this; he has money and he has a reliable army. Not known as a man of action, Maliki saw a good opportunity and ran with it. His popularity has swelled immensely in the last few days and he’s becoming increasingly popular even among the most hostile demographic: Sunnis.
Maliki is the hero; Maliki is thus politically viable.
That’s why someone like ex-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is scrambling, along with Chalabi and others vying for the PM slot, to broker negotiations between Maliki and the Sadrists; if Maliki wins, and I’ve already wagered that he will, then their hopes for unseating him before, and maybe after, the next parliamentary elections are dashed. Jaafari will also lose the chairmanship of the Da’awa Party for ever.
But then there are tea leaves and those charlatans back in America who read them, for a fee: “Iran gave the go-ahead to Maliki to take out the Sadrists since they don’t need them anymore”, “Maliki is irrelevant, this only benefits the Hakims”, “it ain’t over until the fat Fadhila lady sings”, etc.
Exposing myself to mediocrity of this lowly grade really jars against my soul. It's best to ignore it.
One last source for distortion to ponder is the April-Petraeus-Capitol Hill factor. Almost everyone I spoke to today was very angered by Maliki’s extension of his ultimatum to April 8 (…Ali al-Hatem’s Anbar tribal front took credit for convincing Maliki to extend the ultimatum). Maliki is pretending to have all the time in the world, while the Bush administration is all flustered over Petraeus’ upcoming day before Congress. Petraeus does not want to be burdened with negative headlines (…hey, the NYTimes reheats those from day to day) and he certainly doesn’t like the fact that Maliki is running the show down in Basra without his input. Thus Maliki’s actions imperil Petraeus’ political standing while the latter can’t do a thing to curb the former. Yeah, it’s called sovereignty.
I heard an interesting theory as to why Maliki seems so unhurried: he knows that his ‘restraint’ will make the Americans squirm but that’s exactly his idea of payback for a humiliating security check that he personally experienced a little over three weeks ago that drove him to cancel a teleconference with President Bush in anger. Not much of a theory, but it informs Maliki’s state of mind. He’s known to be a proud man and a vindictive one too.
In any case, the 72 hr ultimatum and the April 8 deadline could be two different things in Maliki's head and in the Iraqi Army's plans, since it seems there are preparations to cleanse several key Basra neighborhoods starting tomorrow. The actual wording for the April 8 deadline is that a financial reward will be offered to those handing in medium and heavy armaments to the Iraqi military.
Petraeus was hoping to do Mosul next, that is before Basra, so that he can tell Congress that he’s defeated Al-Qaeda, but to do that he would need the Iraqi Army divisions now engaged in Basra. It seems that Maliki didn’t want another headline of the “Shia Army Beats Up on Sunnis” variety to mar his legacy, so he went south with a subtle PR objective to demonstrate that he’s his own man and that he is not sectarian.
Generally, most of what I’m hearing from my sources seems to indicate that both the western and Arab press are grossly exaggerating the scope of whatever security breakdown they’ve been fantasizing about throughout Iraq.
For example, the radically Sunni television stations Al-Sharqiya and al-Baghdadiya reported, according to a Sadrist spokesman using a pseudonym that an entire unit of the National Police had surrendered to the Mahdi Army in the Husseiniya-Rashdiya-Boobelsham area (northeastern Baghdad). I happen to have a very reliable and very knowledgeable source living smack in the middle of that area who tells me this report, which he had seen on TV, was absolutely bogus and not a single bullet had been fired in these shantytown-like areas up until Friday night Baghdad time when I spoke to him last.
So there you have it: the media is saying one thing, and my sources are giving me a very different portrait of events. I choose to believe my sources. You folks can do whatever you like.
Oh my, there’s really much more but this is all that I type up for now.