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Steve Gilliard, 1964-2007

It is with tremendous sadness that we must convey the news that Steve Gilliard, editor and publisher of The News Blog, passed away June 2, 2007. He was 42.

To those who have come to trust The News Blog and its insightful, brash and unapologetic editorial tone, we have Steve to thank from the bottom of our hearts. Steve helped lead many discussions that mattered to all of us, and he tackled subjects and interest categories where others feared to tread.

Please keep Steve's friends and family in your thoughts and prayers.

Steve meant so much to us.

We will miss him terribly.

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Ft. Apache

Possible Disaster in Baghdad

Tue Feb 13, 2007 at 10:44:29 AM PST

The title of this diary may sound vastly understated, even sarcastic. It isn't meant that way. It is meant as an alarm.

The current escalation in Baghdad might not be just more of the same, might not just be worse, it might be a military disaster. From what I have learned, it seems the elements of a large-scale defeat for US forces could be drawing into place in the city. The result could be hundreds of casualties on top of a failed mission.

Below are my observations drawn from current news reports and study of previous operations in Iraq. If my fears are borne out, the current Baghdad security plan leaves our troops vulnerable to almost every weapon at the insurgents' disposal.

"People (in America) think it's bad, but that we control the city. That's not the way it is. They control it, and they let us drive around. It's hostile territory." --1st Lt. Dan Quinn, platoon leader, 1st Infantry Division in eastern Baghdad

Few specifics about the plan have been released except for the AEI's original map which simply showed Army Brigade Combat Teams sprinkled across the districts of Baghdad. It wasn't clear if the troops would be garrisoned on bases in brigade strength (3,500-4,000 soldiers), battalions (800-1,000), or smaller units. If early operations are any indication, the troop deployments will be modeled on a single house in northeastern Baghdad.

The Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad is the last Sunni enclave on the east side of the Tigris. Despite being only a short car bomb drive from Sadr City, it has stayed Sunni largely because of the presence of US troops. Since August of 2006, an Army company has lived in a house in the neighborhood. They patrol the streets, getting attacked daily from inside the neighborhood by Sunnis or from outside by raiding Shiites. They are a unit of 120 soldiers and they are a long way from friendly forces. When I read about this situation, the first word that popped into my head was, "Alamo." I would never consider using such a cynical term out loud but, hell, that's what the soldiers on the ground are calling it. Its real name is a much more reassuring fort Apache:

[MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT]: We're with Charlie Company, 126th Infantry, based at forward operating base Apache. Although it's not really a base, it's actually a house. A hundred and twenty men in the middle of probably the city's most dangerous area.

HENDRIX: Some guys call it the Alamo, you know. It's just a house in the middle of Adhamiya. Nobody else around. No other units.

HOLMES: They are fired on regularly by insurgents, both Sunni and Shia. The house shows the scars.

A couple of months ago, insurgents attacked her. Charlie Company killed 38 of them. Around here, something as simple as leaving a house after speaking with the owners requires smoke grenades for cover.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We unfortunately, you know, learn some hard lessons.

HOLMES: Since arriving here in August, Charlie Company has never left, never stopped patrolling, 24/7. They've lost five men, two dozen wounded, and earned a fistful of medals for bravery.

(on camera): Is there a day here where something doesn't happen?


Surge author and tin soldier abuser Fred Kagan has bitched that soldiers need to get out of their vehicles and make contact with the residents to quell violence. Since early reports suggest there could be a critical vehicle shortage, that part of the plan seems assured. The situation described above is what they may look forward to.

Another house was recently set up in the ethnically-cleansed Shiite neighborhood of Shaab just northeast of Adhamiya. You may remember the fighting in Shaab and adjacent Ur around February 6th. A Stryker Brigade was clearing an area of insurgents in order to establish a house for a company from the 82nd Airborne. Those soldiers of the 82nd will have a challenging task of winning hearts and minds if this resident's account of the clearing operation is accurate:

A resident of Ur said about 10 U.S. Stryker armored vehicles had snaked through her neighborhood but became stuck on a narrow street. Unable to turn around, she said, the first Stryker rammed down the walls of a school and drove through it, followed by the rest of the convoy.

Is it just me? Does that paragraph depict a crystal-clear, multi-dimensional problem of interfacing troops with a high-density civilian population? In the event of an emergency, it is likely that these Strykers will be coming to the aid of troops under attack. Situations like the one above are going to kill civilians and vehicle occupants alike as insurgents attempt to turn tight alleyways into incinerators.

Getting back to the houses: they are officially known as JSSs, Joint Security Stations-- buildings where US and Iraqi troops will work and live together... at least until they don't. US officers won't have authority over the Iraqis-- who will take orders from a separate chain of command. Given the infiltration of Iraq's Security Forces, having them within the walls could be incredibly dangerous. A cynic might see them as an early warning system-- the day they disappear is probably the same day the Mahdi Army is planning to attack. Of course, when they do disappear, they will be taking knowledge of the building's layout, weak points, schedules, ammunition storage, supply levels, etc.

In short, this "Surge" plan will expose US soldiers to every weapon the Shiite and Sunni militias have: snipers, mortars, IEDs, car bombs, but most importantly: supply route interruption.

Research for this diary keeps circling back to the events of April 2004. That month is most vividly remembered for the image of four mercenaries killed and suspended from a bridge and the subsequent siege of Falluja. But it was also the month Sadr's Mahdi Army joined the fighting and took over large areas of the South. During the first half of April, his militia took over Karbala, Kufa, Najaf, and Kut,. The result was one of the deadliest months of the war. What was far less reported was the simultaneous and extremely effective attack on supply routes:

The south-north highway, over which all the deliveries out of the main supply hub crossed, was marked with more than 300 bridges. The bulk of these bridges are low, culvert-style structures. Insurgents cut as many as they could in any way possible. They punctured oil pipelines under bridges and set them aflame to inspire a collapse. They detonated explosives to punch ragged holes in the roadway. In one instance, insurgents dissembled a tall bridge spanning a river. They also targeted likely alternative routes. “They effectively shut us down,” he said. “When they took out the bridges ... we lost about seven days. In conjunction, they increased the op tempo in the north, especially in the Fallujah area ... I didn’t sleep for eight days.”

DoD map of attacks on April 7, 2004 (Green arrows are Mahdi Army attacks on cities lining supply routes).

While US forces were dealing with critical shortages and resorting to air resupply across the country, Iraq's militias were joining forces. Within days of the uprising, Sadr militia and ex-Baathist-- hated enemies-- were working together in sophisticated attacks as reported at the time:

"The dropping of the bridges was very interesting, because it showed a regional or even a national level of organization," Pittard said in an interview. He said insurgents appeared to be sending information southward, communicating about routes being taken by U.S. forces and then getting sufficient amounts of explosives to key bridges ahead of the convoys.

With occupation forces battling Sadr's Shiite militiamen south and east of Baghdad and Sunni Muslim insurgents to the north and west, the timing of the Iraqis' tactical development is nearly as troubling for U.S. forces as its effect. But the explanation for the change is not yet clear, military commanders said.

Here in southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, U.S. officers say the best guess is that former soldiers who served under President Saddam Hussein have decided to lend their expertise and coordinating abilities to the untrained Shiite militiamen.

"It's a combination of Saddam loyalists and Shiite militias," Maj. Gen. John R. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said in a brief interview here at FOB Duke, where he was reviewing combat preparations.

The generally accepted conclusion to this episode was that the US entered a stand off in Falluja while decisively beating concentrations of the Mahdi Army in the south. While those events did occur, the timing suggests other forces were at work beyond the battlefield. Around the middle of the month, it was reported that Sadr was ready to negotiate. Shortly after, attacks on convoys lessened. At the time, Sadr's willingness to deal was depicted as desperation to avoid the destruction of his militia. But just three months later, he was given his own 32-seat faction in the new Iraqi Parliament and the health, agriculture, transport, and education ministries. Negotiations appear to have gone well.

Regardless of the backdoor machinations, US combat support units had a job to do: move supplies. Their immediate response was additional escorts, fast driving, and emergency airlifts for critical items like ammunition. After April, alternate routes were added, trucks were armored, and supply points were decentralized. While these changes might help on the open road, they are not applicable to delivering supplies over the last mile in Baghdad. Resupplying dozens of JSS buildings will mean either many small, lightly defended convoys or fewer, but larger, convoys snaking their way through the crowded streets of Baghdad.

Coordinated attacks on road traffic would leave the forward-deployed companies at the JSS buildings reliant on helicopters for supplies, reinforcements, and evacuations-- medical or otherwise. Helicopters, as widely reported, are facing increased threats themselves. Al Qaeda in Iraq has claimed it has a newer "Strella" type shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles [they may be referring to the Strella-3 (NATO-code SA-14), or Igla-1 (SA-16) or Igla (SA-18) missiles that can attack aircraft from any side, not just from behind like the easily-confused, heat-seeking Strella-2 (SA-7), of which Iraq has many]. Al Qaeda in Iraq is also claiming the weapons are being made available to all groups regardless of affiliation (I presume they mean only other Sunni groups, though). Whether this is true or not, there has obviously been effective coordination against helicopters. Even worse, most of the recent attacks have occurred outside of the cities. A helicopter attempting to land or hover in order to drop supplies to a house in Mansour or Sadr City would be an extremely easy target even to RPGs (remember Black Hawk Down?).

By dividing our forces, the plan not only gives the Sunni and Shiites a chance to attack, it gives them a chance to lay siege.

And most frighteningly, it gives Shia and Sunni an strong incentive to work together again.

Probably. Despite the ongoing civil war, there are individuals and groups with connections across sectarian lines. On the Shiite side, there is Moqtada al Sadr. His organization provided relief supplies to Falluja during the April 2004 siege-- an act that made him a lot of friends among the Sunnis. His relatively nationalistic outlook and his constant call for Americans to leave Iraq roughly lines up with the priorities of non-al Qaeda groups on the Sunni side. That makes Sadr the man who can determine whether Baghdad waits out the American presence, fights, or lays a trap.

At this stage, Sadr's wisest strategy would still be to wait. Whether we leave in 6 months or two years, we are leaving. Despite the ravings of Bush, the Baghdad meat grinder is going to run out of cash and bodies soon enough. Once we're gone, Sadr can ethnically cleanse Baghdad before destroying SCIRI. At that point, it is just a matter of having a giant statue cast for Firdos Square.

The US seems intent on drawing Sadr out though. As I first mentioned in this diary, many of his lieutenants have been captured or killed and several officials have been arrested from ministries he controls. There have also been several strikes within Sadr City in the last few weeks. Provoking Sadr like this makes a limited amount of sense: if you can take him on individually and crush him now, smaller groups would likely refrain from doing the same. Also, a weakened Sadr may lose the the confidence of other groups.

But the greatest danger comes from a coordinated Sunni/Shia planned uprising. If they lay in wait until JSS houses are spread across the city, they could inflict severe casualties at those outposts while paralyzing movement on the roads and in the sky. Eventually, Abrams tanks and Strykers could reach the houses-- but only by cutting wide swaths of destruction trough dense neighborhoods (much like the Stryker path through the school, just miles longer). The mission in Baghdad would be over in many senses: practically, militarily, and morally.

The events described here may or may not come to pass. Like Fred Kagan, I am no expert. All I know is what I have read about the situation and how the participants have acted in the past. Our troops will be spread out in vulnerable positions. The Sunni/Shia factions has stopped convoys in the past. They are shooting down helicopters now. Most importantly, they have cooperated jointly in combat before. These are seemingly the perfect conditions for disaster. If theses dangers haven't been addressed, that negligence would be criminal.

UPDATE: I just want to make clear that I am not predicting a defeat for the entire US Army in Baghdad. A siege of the airport, for instance, is incredibly unlikely. Specifically, I am saying it appears the Joint Security Stations are too small to provide adequate protection for US forces manning them. If the stations are vulnerable, the soldiers will not be able to provide neighborhood security. An attack could result in needless casualties and failure of the operation's goal. The Army would in no way be swept from the city though.

Still, the most likely outcome is that the factions wait until we leave. It's sad that could be considered a good outcome.

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