The recent stories about the battles between Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Iraqi Army, in which al-Sadr was declared the victor despite calling for a ceasefire are starting to fall apart. Intuitively it just seemed wrong that al-Sadr was laying down his arms when he was supposedly giving the Iraqi government a shellacking. Well chalk one up for intuition. According to a Center for Threat Awareness symposium Iraq v. Mahdi Army (hat tip to NRO's The Tank) the media (surprise!) got it wrong.
Bill Roggio, Military Operations analyst of The Long War Journal: On March 25, the Iraqi security forces, under the command of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, launched Operation Knights Assault against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-back Shia terror groups in the port city of Basrah. The Iraqi forces met stiff resistance in Basrah as the whole of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army rushed to fight the security forces. A brigade from the Iraqi Army apparently cracked under the offensive, and about 500 soldiers “underperformed or defected” along with about 400 police. The Iraqi brigade was only five weeks out of training; it is the Army’s newest formation.
The Iraqi military immediately began rushing forces into Basrah; about 7,000 soldiers, special forces, and SWAT units were moved to Basrah to join the fight. Meanwhile Mahdi Army forces attacked in Baghdad and the wider South. US and Iraqi forces killed nearly 200 Mahdi fighters in Baghdad The Iraqi security forces quickly restored security in the cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hillah, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Al Kut, and Amarah with minimal US assistance.
Just as the new Iraqi forces began to arrive in Basrah and US and British forces were gearing up to augment the Iraqi military, Muqtada al Sadr, under orders from Iran’s Qods Force, called for his fighters to withdraw from the streets. Sadr issued a nine-point list of demands, which included that operations cease. Maliki refused and Iraqi and US forces continued to move into Basrah and conduct pinpoint raids against Shia terror groups. More than 200 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 700 were wounded, and 300 captured during the six days of fighting in Basrah alone.
Maliki has said the military will continue to operate against the Mahdi Army, and US and Iraqi forces have kept Sadr City and Shula in Baghdad under curfew. Forces have been reported to be slowly moving into the Mahdi Army stronghold.
In other words, despite taking some punishment from al-Sadr's army the Iraqi forces pressed (and continue to press) onward. They now have control of the valuable Basran seaports. It seems that the press was too willing to buy the rather unlikely scenario that at the moment when he was looking victory in the eye al-Sadr was choosing negotiations instead.
It would be easy to blame this very large error on journalistic bias against the war and no doubt this played a part. But even more evenhanded outlets (Fox News) seemed to buy the erroneous interpretation of what happened. The Center for Threat Awareness (CTA) makes a reasonable suggestion about how to prevent or at least lessen such poor reporting in the future:
“Do we want to lose?” That is a question believed by many to unfortunately be perhaps less than rhetorical in nature. We at the Center for Threat Awareness have long held that the American public would be much better served and more accurately informed if we had more military veterans in a journalistic operation rather than journalism veterans in a military operation.
The media no doubt is looking forward to General Petraeus' testimony before Congress this week to watch members of that body slam the General on the recent escalation of violence in Iraq. Petraeus has a better story to tell than Democrats would like to hear. It will be interesting to see how honestly that story is told by the press.