Bill Ardolino, writing in the Long War Journal, provides one of the best closup looks at the campaign in Sadr City. Sifting through the neighborhood buzz from a night patrol, Ardolino describes ebb in the JAM/Special Group influence in the vast slum as first the Sons of Iraq, a predominantly Sunni group, and now the Iraqi Security Forces, are moving into the area.
Part of the JAM's problem is that it is to a large extent a criminal organization that is wearing out its welcome with the population. Like al-Qaeda in Iraq before it, the JAM suffers from the downside of the anonymity and lack of restraint that is extolled by theorists or irregular warfare: the lack of discipline, accountability and steady and pay. The original impetus behind the evolution of uniformed national armies, with their ranks, ceremonials, discipline and rules was to increase military utility, not to restrain it.
The depredations of the Thirty Years's War, a European conflict more vicious than the Second World War, led to the end of freebooting, poorly disciplined and religiously affiliated armies. Prior to the institution of discipline combatants would descend on towns, friendly and hostile alike, and make off with everything that wasn't nailed out. As one Scottish officer of the period put it, private soldiers needed something to "ballast their lightness". The JAM would understand the Thirty Year's warfare. Again, from Ardolino:
"Right now because of the fighting Sadr City, people have started to despise [the Mahdi Army] because of the situation they created," said "Rammie," an Army interpreter raised and living in Rusafa. "People have started to know the truth of [the Mahdi Army] as kidnappers, killers, carjackers, and agents of the Iranian government. But the recent fighting against the [Iraqi security forces] means they are also against the government. They are not trying to just fight the invasion forces as they claim, but they fight whoever interferes with their mafia activity."
The indiscipline and savagery of terrorists would not be enough for the population to turn against them unless there was a secure alternative. Terrorists can use fear to maintain control over the population long after affection for them has evaporated. Witness Hamas in Gaza. But if a significantly more disciplined and effective local force makes an appearance, the population may switch to the alternative. That alternative may now be in view, if the Iraqi Security Forces can get their act together.
"These guys [the Mahdi Army] are fighting between the houses [among civilians]," said a corporal in the Iraqi Army. "They use the houses as their armor, so that's why many innocent people are killed, because they shoot mortars between the houses and run away. Iran will pay a lot of money for ignorant people to behave crazy. They claim that they belong to Muqtada al Sadr, but they do not belong to Muqtada, they belong to Iran." ...
"We are so close to establishing a fully legitimized ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] structure," said Captain Nathan Hubbard, the commander of the 3-83 Cav's Alpha Troop, which is responsible for a Joint Security Station in the Al Fahdil area of Rusafa. "I would say that with the successful conclusion of Basrah and the continuation of [the offensive in] Sadr City -- the closing off of the criminal elements down there -- you'll see a significant swing in public belief in the ISF. More [Iraqis] would buy into ISF being a legit force. Right now, the citizens are maybe 40 percent pro-government, 40 percent on the fence, and some seriously anti-ISF guys on the side. The people want a force that is willing to go after any terrorists, including AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq], Mahdi Army, the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers' Party]. They just like to see the government doing something."
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