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Iraq Report: March 19, 2008

Five Years Later, News From Iraq Not All Bad

By RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo

Posters promoting national reconciliation going up in Baghdad in 2007

Politics is a dirty business anywhere in the world, but Iraqi politics today rank among the most divisive. While much has been written about Iraq since 2003 -- the early mistakes that continue to impede progress, the bitter rivalries that leave so many innocents dead, the roles of superpowers and neighbors -- few observers have offered a far-sighted view of the state of affairs.

Like all nation-states forged from strife, Iraq is experiencing growing pains. As the country's diverse ethnic and sectarian groups struggle for a piece of the ruling pie, gains, though slow, have been made. But it will take time. The term "political accommodation" has yet to register in the mind-set of many Shi'ite leaders who were swept to power after the fall of the Hussein regime. Kurds, intent on maintaining their autonomy, say they are being asked to accommodate too much, with Baghdad demanding control over the region's oil while offering little in return. Sunni Arabs, the losers in the war, continue to complain of marginalization by the government.

Iraq is not easy and the problems seem never-ending. A reconciliation conference in Baghdad this week, hastily arranged by the government, proved this. The Sunni Arab-led Iraqi Accordance Front boycotted the meeting altogether, while a Shi'ite bloc affiliated with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi "declined" to attend. One Sadrist parliamentarian called the meeting "government propaganda." The splits run deep, even among supposed allies.

Three major blocs pulled out of the government in 2007 and have yet to return. Two of those blocs, the Al-Fadilah Party and the Sadrists, were onetime allies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. All boycotting blocs say the government, dominated by the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, is bent on consolidating power in the hands of the few. Al-Maliki has been promising for months to reshuffle the cabinet and replace powerful political appointees with qualified technocrats. Still, no changes have come, leaving many to conclude that there is no will behind the rhetoric. Or, perhaps, the prime minister is constrained by his own bloc, which has effectively consolidated its control over the country's security forces over the past five years.

Much has been written about Sunni and Shi'ite militias. Less has been written about the militia-controlled security forces, and their ties to supposed benefactors like Iran. Iraqis living in Shi'ite-populated areas whisper about a government project to eliminate Shi'ite opposition. Journalists acknowledge that this goes on but are hesitant to write about it for fear of retribution. Meanwhile, the government says it is cracking down on insurgents.

'Year Of Reconstruction'

Like 2007, 2008 promises to be a decisive year for Iraq. By naming it the year of reconstruction, al-Maliki hopes to build on security gains through robust foreign investment and job creation. On the political front, the country should see nationwide provincial elections. Set for October, the elections threaten to usher in a radically different local leadership that will challenge the halls of power in Baghdad.

These leaders, comprised of tribesmen and homegrown political parties, have a real base of local support, unlike so many opposition parties that came to power in 2005. For Shi'ite leaders like Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who returned to Iraq after 20-some years in Iran, and whose onetime militia, the Badr Corps, has now infiltrated the ranks of police and army, the threat of losing power in governorate elections is very real. Sunni Arabs from the Accordance Front will also have to share space with tribal leaders who have turned their awakening councils into political parties. The awakening councils were initially formed by tribesman in 2007 to fight Al-Qaeda.

The Kurdistan Coalition may be the only coalition to stand unchallenged at the local level.

Indeed, progress is slow, and slower than many in the West would want. Iraqi leaders chose in the first three years after the war to postpone the hard decisions until later. And now, there is mounting pressure from within (not to mention from outside Iraq) to deal with them. The government's passage of a general amnesty law last month was a huge step towards reconciliation. Already, more than 3,000 Iraqis have been released from Iraqi detention.

The Accountability and Justice Law, which serves as a revision of the Coalition Provisional Authority-era de-Ba'athification law, is another step forward. It paves the way for thousands of Ba'athists dismissed from their jobs and from the army, to be reinstated. Though the Shi'ite-led government is moving slowly toward implementing the law, the pressure continues, and progress is being made. The move may be less one of political accommodation and more a need for qualified technocrats. As time goes on, and development takes off, that need for qualified technocrats will only rise. Incorporating awakening forces into the security apparatus has met more resistance from the government. Should the awakening councils not be merged into the police and army, the potential for a breakdown on the security front rises considerably.

Other controversial issues remain. The draft oil law has yet to be passed, obstructing development of the dilapidated oil infrastructure. But technical-support agreements are being signed, and exploration agreements are on the horizon. If al-Maliki succeeds in luring in foreign investment, pressure on the oil industry, the revenues from which make up more than 90 percent of the country's budget, will increase. Last year, Iraq had an estimated $21 billion to $25 billion budget surplus from money not spent on reconstruction projects due to insecurity. With greater parts of the country experiencing security, those surpluses should be expected to fall in coming years.

Corruption continues to be a major impediment to al-Maliki's administration. The government recognizes this and has taken steps to curb corruption. But in one recent high-profile case, it turned a blind eye to the issue, leading many to wonder if there is any substance behind the rhetoric. Last week, al-Maliki cleared two former senior Health Ministry officials, both Shi'a, of corruption charges, even though the Commission on Public Integrity had evidence to substantiate the charges.

The former head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, Judge Radi al-Radi, said in testimony before the U.S. Congress on March 11 that out of 3,000 corruption cases successfully investigated by the commission, only 241 cases to date resulted in guilty verdicts. He estimated the cost of ministry corruption uncovered by the commission at $18 billion, citing the Defense, Trade, Electricity, Transport, Health, Interior, Communications, Housing, Finance and Oil ministries as the most corrupt.

The figures do not include cases dismissed by judges after they were threatened or assassinated, and they do not reflect the full extent of oil corruption, which includes smuggling, theft, and other fraud. The level of corruption affecting the industry because of the activities of Sunni and Shi'ite militias has resulted in the Oil Ministry "effectively financing terrorism through these militias," he said. Al-Radi, a career technocrat, has since sought asylum in the United States after the Iraqi government issued counteraccusations against him and issued its own arrest warrant for him. Al-Radi's replacement, Musa Faraj, said in January that pressure from within Prime Minister al-Maliki's administration -- but not from al-Maliki himself -- has restricted the commission's ability to function.

As Iraq enters the sixth year since the fall of the Hussein regime, the challenges remain daunting. Many questions linger as to the effects of the U.S. military surge, and whether security gains can be maintained. The greater question is whether there is a will on the part of the government to maintain those gains. U.S. support for awakening councils is one reason Iraq is more secure today than it was one year ago.

It remains unclear whether the Shi'ite-led government will continue along that path. To date, there are awakening councils in 11 governorates, including in six Shi'ite-populated governorates. Those too, may see little support from the government down the road, depending on where the councils -- or to be more exact, the tribes that comprise them -- stand politically. Indeed, much work lies ahead for Iraq. But the challenges are not insurmountable. All that is needed is a will to move forward equitably and with transparency.

Embedded RFE/RL Correspondent Recalls War's First Day

By Ron Synovitz

RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz in an APC in Iraq, March 2003

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz was embedded with U.S. soldiers as they advanced to Baghdad in March and April 2003. In a "Reporter's Notebook" marking the third anniversary of the U.S.-led campaign to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Synovitz describes the events he witnessed during the first day of major combat by the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- the siege of Tallil Airfield and other objectives near Al-Nasiriyah.

About 36 hours before the invasion of Iraq began, soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division braced themselves for combat with a marching song about American soldiers killed during World War II.

Listen to the audio: Real Audio Windows Media

Having torn down their desert camps and moved to the southwest corner of Kuwait, orders to "push out" across the nearby border into Iraq were shouted by ground troops down along the long lines of vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division just before dawn on March 20.

Listen to the audio: Real Audio Windows Media

Master Sergeant: Everybody stop what you're doing. Get back in your vehicles and push out.
Sergeant: Stop what you're doing. Get into your vehicles and get ready to push out.
Master Sergeant: We're pushing out right where you're at.

It wasn't until the next evening -- after the division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team had advanced across 300 kilometers of desert -- that the U.S. Army's first major battle in Iraq began. The U.S. plan called for simultaneous attacks on three military objectives just outside of Al-Nasiriyah.

One of them was the headquarters of the Iraqi Regular Army's 11th Infantry Division -- a massive compound with barracks and repair facilities for at least one armored battalion. It was codenamed Objective Liberty.

Objective Clay was a bridge across the Euphrates River, about 10 kilometers from the city.

The third objective was Tallil Airfield -- codenamed Objective Firebird. It was the task of the soldiers I traveled with to destroy Tallil's defenses so that a follow-up force could occupy the airfield and U.S. planes could use it to support the advance on Baghdad.

The Battle Begins

Near Objective Liberty, a platoon of U.S. Abrams M-1 tanks spotted six Iraqi T-62 tanks dug into fighting positions.

The aging, Soviet-built tanks appeared as hot spots on the thermal sights of the Abrams gunners -- confirming that the Iraqi tanks had their engines running. But without night-vision instruments -- and with their guns unable to match the range or firepower of the U.S. tanks -- the Iraqi armor was decimated within minutes.

Explosions seen and heard from the direction of Objective Clay indicated fierce Iraqi resistance there. But the Americans managed to capture the bridge intact before sunrise without any casualties.

Meanwhile, the soldiers I rode with approached their battle positions near the airfield. As the column advanced around Tallil's defensive earthworks and its oil-filled trenches, U.S. commanders still hoped the Iraqis there would surrender without a fight.

Confusion In The Dark

Then, after a short pause in the darkness, the lead vehicles of the convoy drove off to their battle positions -- leaving me stranded in no-man's-land with a few dozen U.S. soldiers.

It was typical of what can happen in the confusion of battle. Two days later, 19-year-old U.S. Private Jessica Lynch would be captured by Iraqis after her vehicle became separated from her convoy in the same area.

Sergeant Rourke, nicknamed "Mike Golf" because of his status as a master gunner, discovered that two soldiers in a truck ahead had fallen asleep during the brief pause.

Those in the vehicles behind the sleeping soldiers had no idea that the front of the convoy had already advanced into battle position.

U.S. Captain Dan Zovkie was furious. He shouted at Rourke just as another soldier announced on the battalion's radio network that part of the convoy had been left behind.

Listen to the audio: Real Audio Windows Media

Zovkie: Let's go, Mike Golf.
Radio transmission: I'm the last vehicle in the convoy.
Zovkie: Rourke! Let's go! Get in the car.
Rourke: Whoever was leading this convoy ran off and left us. I wonder who was leading?

Uttering a string of curse words, Zovkie immediately improvised a plan in case of an attack by the Iraqi troops on the other side of the earthworks.

Listen to the audio: Real Audio Windows Media

Zovkie: Nobody walks away from this truck. If anything happens and we have to get out of this truck, we will rally and get back to 100 meters off the back of the tail. So if we are heading this way and we get in contact [with Iraqi troops] and we have to [jump out of] this truck, we rally 100 meters off the back. We don't walk away from each other. We use the radio to do our walking. Who knows what is out here. We are in Indian country.

Hopes of making it to a safer place were dashed when the task force commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, ordered all of the stranded vehicles to hold their positions. Over the battalion radio, Charlton warned "Basically, anything that moves has got to die."

I could hear U.S. intelligence officers on the radio discussing whether the Iraqis at the airfield were going to surrender. The transmissions revealed that senior officers in Iraq's regular army had taken bribes from covert U.S. agents in exchange for a surrender without a fight. The Pentagon later confirmed such bribes were paid.

According to one transmission, a top Iraqi officer claimed his troops had been ordered into civilian clothes but couldn't surrender yet.

That commander was still promising capitulation when two Iraqis on a motorcycle charged at a U.S. tank. One was carrying a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. A flash of light came from the tank's gun barrel, marking the start of the battle.

Listen to the audio: Real Audio Windows Media

The radio started to hum with battlefield reports and "call for fire" requests from U.S. scouts located dozens of Iraqi vehicles within the airfield with their thermal guidance systems.

Listen to the audio: Real Audio Windows Media

I watched for hours as U.S. artillery barrages passed overhead and into the airfield. When a shell missed, the explosion made a small flash. When a target was hit, there often were secondary blasts from exploding ammunition or fuel. Through tinted night-vision goggles, the sky appeared to light up in an enormous greenish blaze.

Then the stranded U.S. vehicles were told to advance. In the eerie yellow-gray light before dawn, I passed twisted metal and charred ground -- all that was left of the motorcycle attack against the U.S. tank.

Civilians As Human Shields

Muted colors gave the landscape the appearance of a World War II-era newsreel. The hulks of burning Iraqi vehicles still burned, belching trails of black smoke that were carried perpendicular to the horizon by a strong wind. Rubble and more wrecked Iraqi military vehicles dotted the roadside. Several dozen Iraqi prisoners were being escorted by U.S. troops to a temporary holding area.

By the time Captain Zovkie was reunited with his unit, the sun had begun to rise.

U.S. 3rd Infantry Division troops fight off an Iraqi counterattack near Al-Nasiriya on March 21, 2003 (RFE/RL)

Suddenly, several dozen Iraqi women and children began slowly approaching the U.S. forces. One woman was opening and closing a dark outer robe with a white inner lining. It was a clear signal of distress. None of these civilians was carrying weapons.

Lieutenant Colonel Charlton shouted at his soldiers to hold their fire. But he also told them to also be prepared for the possibility of a sudden attack. He suspected the women and children were being used as human shields by Iraqi forces.

He was right. A pickup truck raced out toward the brigade's tactical-operations center with a half dozen uniformed Iraqi soldiers who carried rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. They managed to fire two rockets -- narrowly missing a 5,000-gallon U.S. fuel truck -- before the gunner in a U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle fired a burst with depleted-uranium ammunition. The DU-ammo pierced the fuel tank of the pickup truck and ignited a fireball that killed all of the Iraqi soldiers.

The civilians started to move back after the failed attack.

Objectives Achieved

Iraqi infantry would stage several more counterattacks that morning. But their assaults melted away when they were strafed and bombed by U.S. A-10 Warthog planes that flew in from Kuwait to provide close air support.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team had accomplished its first objectives of the war. The defenses at Tallil were destroyed and the Euphrates River bridge was captured.

Iraqi resistance would continue at Objective Liberty and from the city of Al-Nasiriyah itself after the lead U.S. combat teams moved on to battles near Al-Samawah, Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad.

But American reinforcements were soon moving into Tallil Airfield and military cargo planes started landing with supplies to support the U.S. advance on Baghdad.

The rules for embedded journalists prohibited me from reporting immediately that U.S. forces had established a forward-operations base in southern Iraq. That information would remain embargoed for embedded journalists until Saddam Hussein International Airport was captured and renamed Baghdad International Airport about two weeks later.

But one important fact could be told: The U.S. Army had fought its first major battle of the war. And the Pentagon's hopes for an Iraqi capitulation without a fight had failed to materialize.