Shiite Radicals Join with Sunni Insurgents in Ramadi
The third day of Moqtada Sadr’s radical Shiite uprising saw US-led coalition forces under attack by both Sunnis and Shiites and the first extremely dangerous sign of a merger between the two fronts. debkafile‘s military sources report that US-led forces, instead of beginning to get a grip on the armed Shiite militia uprising in Baghdad and four cities, appeared to be letting command slip out their hands. There was little indication of US forces executing the arrest warrant out against the Shiite radical cleric since October. He lost no time in slipping underground, possibly in the Shiite holy city of Najef, with the estimated 3,000-strong hard core of his Medhi Army militia.
The failure to move fast enough to nab Sadr may be as costly as was the escape from capture of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in November 2001and of Saddam Hussein in March 2003. Al-Sadr matches neither in stature. He also represents no more than a splinter faction of the Shiite community. Yet if he proves able lead an effective underground resistance to the coalition for a critical period, he could attract a disproportionately large number of Shiite followers to his flag. It might be enough for him to keep going for another five days to a week without being caught or stopped, for the Americans to find themselves in the midst of a full-blown war.
The firebrand cleric and his Mehdi Army militia went into action in three rapid phases:
Stage One: Early Tuesday, April 6, he melted out of his headquarters in the Kufa mosque near Najef and went to ground.
Stage Two: Simultaneously, his militia moved in on the police stations and government buildings of one town after another in southern Iraq.
Stage Three: Tuesday afternoon, shortly after US Marines entered Fallujah to collar the men responsible for the brutal murder of four US contractors last week, fresh Shiite militiamen were drawn from the Sunni Triangle towns of Baquba, Balad, Samarra and Al Muqdaryah to launch a ferocious assault on the US Marine compound in Ar Ramadi, 40 km east of Fallujah. At least 12 US Marines were killed and 20 injured in this assault.
This development represents an ominous turning-point in the Iraqi conflict for four reasons:
1. It was almost certainly coordinated with the Sunni Baathists, imported Arabs and al Qaeda combatants battling US Marines in Fallujah in order to draw off American military pressure in Fallujah and threaten the Marines from the rear.
2. Instead of al Qaeda striking Shiites to inflame civil war – as predicted by some US strategists – Shiites apparently turned up in Ramadi to fight the Americans in cahoots with Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda combatants. This show of solidarity makes the Sunni Triangle of central Iraq, including Baghdad, a doubly hazardous and unruly region
3. US intelligence evaluatons of Moqtada Sadr’s military strength have proved wide of the mark. Tuesday morning, it was still estimated as 10,000 with a hard core of 3,000 fighting men. debkafile‘s military and intelligence sources believe this figure represents only the Mehdi Army’s numbers in Baghdad, Najef and Karbala. It does not take into account the Sunni Triangle Shiite force that was secretly trained and prepared over the past year by thousands of Iranian Republican Guards infiltrators in conjunction with the Iranian protege, Lebanese Hizballah terror-master Imad Mughniyeh. This force numbers an estimated 5,000 combatants, who are better equipped, organized and trained than Mehdi Army militiamen.
4. The Sadrist revolt looks therefore like having taken hold in three major regions of Iraq: The Sunni Triangle, Baghdad and the South.
As for the other fronts:
Baghdad. By Tuesday night, US forces had not regained control of the sprawling Shiite districts of the capital, except for some police stations, and the sounds of fighting were rising in intensity.
The South. Sadr’s militia captured Diwaniya 30 km east of Najef after beating back repeated Spanish attempts backed by US helicopters to recover control.This is the first Iraqi town to fall to Sadr’s forces, a situation that is totally unacceptable to the US command. If complete Iraqi towns continue falling into Shiite or Sunni insurgent hands, the US and coalition forces will quickly lose control of the country.
In Karbala, al Amara and Nassiriyeh, the Mehdi Army captured buildings in the town centers. In Karbala, US and Polish forces failed to repulse the Shiite attackers; likewise the Italian troops in Nasseriyah. In Al Amarah near the Iranian border north of Basra, British contingents using helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery failed to break the Shiite Sadrists’ grip on the town center.
At the end of Day Three of the radical Shiite uprising, therefore, the score was not in the coalition’s favor.