The Press Botches Basra: Puncturing the Two Biggest Media Myths About the Recent Fighting

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Bill Roggio
The Weekly Standard
April 4, 2008

LESS THAN 48 HOURS AFTER Iraqi security forces began their campaign against militant Shia factions in Basra, the media had already declared the operations a failure. The operations, which were initiated on March 25, were designed to quell rogue factions of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. In covering the fighting, the press displayed its previously seen penchant for quickly throwing in the towel when a military operation does not instantaneously meet its goals.

Of course, the expectation of immediate success for an operation aimed at clearing densely-populated urban terrain is highly unrealistic. Recent history in Iraq shows this: it took months before Coalition efforts to clear and hold Baghdad showed progress, and even today only 75 percent of the capital city is considered fully secured. Last year the media declared the surge a failure long before the full contingent of forces was deployed, yet the press did not learn from its mistakes. Two popular myths have developed about the Basra fighting: that it constituted a complete failure for the Iraqi security forces, and that it resulted in a major political embarrassment for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

VIRTUALLY EVERY MEDIA OUTLET declared the Basra operations a military failure before a week had passed. A New York Times headline blared that the “Iraqi Army’s Assault on Militias in Basra Stalls” on March 27, two days after the launch of operations. Two days later–just four days after operations began–Britain’s Independent noted that “the Iraqi army and police have failed to oust the Mahdi Army from any of its strongholds in the capital and in southern Iraq.” And six days after the onset of operations, the Guardian was reporting that “the Iraqi army had made little headway in Basra and large swaths of the city remain under the Mahdi Army’s control.”

To be sure, the Iraqi security forces’ performance in Basra is best described as mixed. However, they did not run into a wall. The Iraqi military was able to clear one Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhood in Basra and was in the process of clearing another when Sadr issued his ceasefire. The ceasefire came on March 30, after six days of fighting, and was seemingly unilateral in the sense that the Iraqi government made no apparent concessions in return. By that time, 571 Mahdi Army fighters had been killed, 881 wounded, 490 captured, and 30 had surrendered countrywide, according to numbers tabulated by The Long War Journal. Thus, an estimated 95 Mahdi Army fighters were killed per day during the six days of fighting. In contrast, al Qaeda in Iraq did not incur such intense casualties even during the height of the surge.

The Iraqi security forces were at their best in the smaller cities in Iraq’s south. The Mahdi Army suffered major setbacks in Hillah, Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniyah, Amarah, Kut, and Nasiriyah. The security forces drove the Mahdi Army off the streets in those cities within days. The casualties taken by the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, Basra, and the wider south surely played a role in Sadr’s tactical decision to call a ceasefire. An American military officer serving in southern Iraq told us, “Whatever gains [the Mahdi Army] has made in the field [in Basrah], they were running short of ammunition, food, and water. In short, [the Mahdi Army] had no ability to sustain the effort.” Time’s sources in Basra paint a similar picture. “There has been a large-scale retreat of the Mahdi Army in the oil-rich Iraqi port city because of low morale and because ammunition is low due to the closure of the Iranian border,” the magazine reported on March 30.

While the Iraqi security forces encountered stiff resistance, and while some units reportedly defected, it is a gross exaggeration to portray the fighting as a complete defeat for them.

THE PRESS WAS EQUALLY INSISTENT that Maliki’s move to secure Basra was a political embarrassment for him, with Sadr emerging the victor. The day after Sadr issued his ceasefire, Time claimed that “the very fact of the cease-fire flies in the face of Maliki’s proclamation that there would be no negotiations. It is Maliki, and not Sadr, who now appears militarily weak and unable to control elements of his own political coalition.” The Associated Press portrayed Maliki as “humbled within his own Shi’ite power base.” And a second Associated Press report stated that “a strict curfew is ending in Baghdad, U.S. diplomats are holed up in their green zone offices, al-Maliki is resented and the private army of Muqtada al-Sadr is intact.”

But the fact is that the Maliki government did not agree to the nine-point terms for a truce that Sadr issued, nor did it sue for peace or promise that operations would cease. Instead the Iraqi government called Sadr’s order for his fighters to pull off the streets a “positive step,” and insisted that operations would continue. “The armed groups who refuse al Sadr’s announcement and the pardon we offered will be targets, especially those in possession of heavy weapons,” Maliki said, referring to the ten-day amnesty period for militias to turn in heavy and medium weapons. “Security operations in Basra will continue to stop all the terrorist and criminal activities along with the organized gangs targeting people.”

Subsequent to the ceasefire, the Iraqi military announced it was moving reinforcements to Basra, and the next day pushed forces into the ports of Khour al Zubair and Umm Qasr. Iraqi special operations forces and special police units have conducted several raids inside Basra since then, while an Iraqi brigade marched into the heart of a Mahdi-controlled Basra neighborhood on April 2. And two days after Sadr called for a ceasefire, the government maintained a curfew in Sadr City and other Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad. None of this would be happening had Maliki simply caved to Sadr.

Maliki’s governing coalition did not revolt over this operation. When the Iraqi opposition held an emergency session of parliament to oppose the Basra operations, only 54 of the 275 lawmakers attended. AFP reported, “The two main parliamentary blocs–Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Alliance–were not present for the session which was attended by lawmakers from radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, the small Shiite Fadhila Party, the secular Iraqi National List and the Sunni National Dialogue Council.” The fact that the major political blocs in Iraq’s parliament ignored the emergency session is politically significant, and no evidence suggests that Maliki’s governing coalition has been jeopardized since then.

Despite this, there is no shortage of reports declaring Maliki’s actions a political failure while announcing victory for Sadr and his Mahdi Army. Some of these press reports cited Sadr’s own spokesmen and militia commanders to prove the point. “We did not really throw everything we have into battle. We only fought in self defense,” an anonymous Mahdi Army commander told the Associated Press. “If al-Maliki has won, he would have dictated his demands. But it’s we who did that.”

But none of the journalists bothered to ask one simple question: if Sadr was so successful, why end the fighting? If Iraq’s army was being beaten and Maliki politically weakened, why not press the fight and make the government collapse? As an American military officer serving in southern Iraq told us, “Claiming a ‘victory’ and then withdrawing from the battlefield is the tactic of someone that is losing.”

WHILE THE RECENT FIGHTING AGAINST the Mahdi Army in Basra, Baghdad, and Iraq’s south was not a stunning victory for the Iraqi government and military, neither was it the resounding defeat that many believe.

It isn’t entirely clear why the media leapt to the conclusions that it did about the Basra operations. Perhaps impatience coupled with a lack of knowledge about military affairs was the biggest factor. Perhaps, tired of six months of generally positive reporting about the surge, journalists were gleeful to announce that the situation on the ground was deteriorating. Or perhaps a negative angle was irresistible in light of General David Petraeus’s upcoming congressional testimony.

Whatever the reason, the press has done a major disservice to readers by misreporting the events in Basra.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Bill Roggio, a former U.S. Army infantryman, is the editor of The Long War Journal and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Both Gartenstein-Ross and Roggio have been to Iraq as embedded reporters.

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