Understanding the fight against Iran inside Iraq
Understanding War has very good description of the ongoing fight between coalition forces and the Iranian Special Groups/JAM (SG/JAM) combo in Iraq. The article (PDF) should be read in its entirety but I will summarize a few points for the convenience of Belmont Club readers. First we begin with the geography of the battlefield. Imagine Baghdad as the center of a clock and project a swath from 2 o'clock and 7 o'clock until it reaches the borders -- most of which will be with Iran. That is the battlefield.
Within that area are two major strongholds of the SG/JAM: Baghdad and Basra. Interspersed between are the "Five Cities": Karbala, Hillah, Kut, Najaf, and Diwaniyah, which form subsidiary strongholds. Each stronghold is roughly configured in the following way. The JAM are assigned a task roughly historically equivalent to that of the Viet Cong while the Special Groups reprise the role of the NVA. That is to say the JAM takes care of the "mass base" -- creating safe havens, maintaining information security, etc -- while the SG handles the more complex operations. The whole is under the command or at least the influence of the Iranian Qods.
Within Baghdad itself the SG/JAM force is based in Sadr City, 9 Nissan, Adhamiyah, and Rasheed districts which is roughly at the 2 o'clock position from the Green Zone and well within effective mortar and rocket range. The enemy force -- may I call them that now for convention? -- is supplied along routes leading from 2 and 3 o'clock and from 4 and 6 o'clock out Baghdad. That is the geography of the battlefield.
Next we come to the relative timing of the recent fighting. The recently publicized outbreak in Basra occurred after a prolonged period of escalated fighting between the Coalition and the SG/JAM. The Basra outbreak might be described as the moment Maliki "jumped into the fray". The most obvious origins of the current campaign was when Coalition forces swept up a senor JAM leader in central Kut in early March, 2008, as part of sustained effort to push them out of their strongholds and scatter them. At that time, another Coalition offensive was underway against Karbala and in Babil (which is to the 6 o'clock of Baghdad on the Coalition's own line of communication with Kuwait). The point was that flare-up occurred in the context of a Coalition effort to take the offensive against Iranian-sponsored forces.
Finally we come to the implied strategy of both sides. The SG/JAM combination consists of two elements. One hard core (SG) and the other of varying quality. The SG normally operates outside the urban centers, in a relatively mobile fashion, attacking towns from the outside from their scattered bases in the countryside. The JAM on the other hand, is a comparatively amateur group, broken up into factions and divided among commanders, who do the spadework and provide the eyes and ears for their more professional colleagues in the SG. The enemy believes this "high-low" mix provides the optimum combination against the Coalition.
The Coalition on the other hand seems to have a mirror strategy. Judging by the narrative the Coalition believes that the SGs will never be fully defeated until their auxiliaries, the JAM, are swept up. For example, the Green Zone will never be secure from bombardment until Sadr city is cleared and occupied by the Coalition's own "militia" -- the Iraqi Army. Consequently the Coalition appears to be building alliances with local militias and tribal leaders on the one hand, while using the Iraqi Army to clear and hold the JAM strongpoints on the other. In the meantime the Coalition is embarked on a parallel effort of headhunting operations: raiding high value targets based on intelligence. Thus, while the Iraqi Army and the political officers take on the JAM, defeating them, turning them, recruiting them, there is also a Special Forces type battle going on against the Special Groups.
As I said, read the whole thing. But I hope the summary I provided above is of some use.
Update: Iran Top Threat To Iraq, U.S. Says, Focus on al-Qaeda diminishing says the WaPo
Last week's violence in Basra and Baghdad has convinced the Bush administration that actions by Iran, and not al-Qaeda, are the primary threat inside Iraq, and has sparked a broad reassessment of policy in the region, according to senior U.S. officials.
Evidence of an increase in Iranian weapons, training and direction for the Shiite militias that battled U.S. and Iraqi security forces in those two cities has fixed new U.S. attention on what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday called Tehran's "malign" influence, the officials said.
The intensified focus on Iran coincides with diminished emphasis on al-Qaeda in Iraq as the leading justification for an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq.
For most of its military history the US has been in the habit of fighting multi-front wars by holding one while crushing the enemy on the other. This strategy allows an economy of resources. There are often not enough troops to meet every threat at once, so the one is temporarily managed while the primary threat is neutralized. The classic example of this one priority front at a time strategy is World War 2. The Germans were to be defeated first. Japan would follow. And it worked. Not everybody was happy with that decision. The men on Bataan were not.
Historically the US made the decision to take on the Sunni problem in Iraq first. It was a complex problem with international dimensions that involved Syria, Saudi Arabia and international terror alliances symbolized by al-Qaeda. It was never the "might US Army versus the Iraqi Minutemen". A whole host of enemy supporters were drawn into Iraq. While the battlefield may have been geographically contained the effects of the conflict were global. Petraeus has defeated not only the Sunni insurgency, but to some extent inflicted losses on Syria, the Saudi Arabian Jihad and on al-Qaeda itself.
But now that front is largely won, or deemed to be won. Whether or not it truly is remains to be seen. But be that as it may, the US is now pivoting its gaze south and east and the second front. The Shi'ites militias -- behind which is Teheran -- now the new strategic focus.
This has been in the works for some time. This was implicit in the buildup of the Iraqi Army. This was implicit in the deployment south of the Baghdad to fight the "Battle of the Belts". This was implicit in the move to quell the "Triangle of Death". All that was a form of shaping the battlefield. It's possible, but not likely, that Petraeus got up one morning and said, "Dang! You know what, I believe Iran is a threat!" It's far more probable that the contingency was already formed in his mind. What was needed was the propitious moment. The commanders had to judge if it was "safe" to shift the focus from al-Qaeda to the South. I think the judgment is that Iran's time has come. Most people should have seen this coming.
I'm pretty certain Iran has. Unlike some commentators, Iran is under no illusion it is fighting itself. Engaging in public exhibitions of violence between its subsidiaries to overawe an American public with their strength. It knows full well it is about to be engaged.
Several questions remain unanswered. First: is MNF-I correct to open this Second Front? Might not the AQI flare up again? Second: how will Iran be tackled? It will depend on three things. The Iraqi Army, the Elections in 2008 and the command plan. Right now those are three variables, the last being dependent.
The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.