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The Press Botches Basra

Puncturing the two biggest media myths about the recent fighting.

12:00 AM, Apr 4, 2008 • By BILL ROGGIO
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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.