Thursday, December 27, 2007

Check out "Weaponology 2" on the Military Channel

I became an Army Ranger in June, 1970 (Ranger class 13-70) while stationed at what was then the “Ranger Department” at Fort Benning. At the time there wasn’t a Ranger Regiment and the only active Rangers were either with me at the Army’s Ranger School, assigned to one of the Army’s regular or airborne units or serving in one of the Ranger Companies in Vietnam.

Although I didn’t serve with those legendary Ranger units (I was a platoon leader with the First “Air” Cav), my Ranger training helped me adapt to the brutal war in Vietnam. With the mentoring of a couple of excellent sergeants, then-Lieutenant Grist began his real education in the craft of war.

Remembering the lessons of some of history’s famous Rangers like Major Robert Rogers of the legendary Roger’s Rangers of the mid-1700s, I learned to read the signs left by the enemy on jungle trails (“trotters” as we referred to them). My sergeants also taught me the art of locating bunker complexes, how to recognizing the smell of the enemy (which is determined by both heritage and diet), the necessity of thinking like a warrior every minute of every day and many, many other things that helped ensure our survival in combat.

I'm nothing special - just an old soldier who’s been around long enough to have served in both Vietnam and Iraq. There are untold numbers of others who have served in more wars and who endured many more horrible experiences than me. I have known or talked to many of these soldiers and I am awed by their courage and sacrifice.

Over the last year, I’ve discovered that participating in the world of blogging opens doors to many parts of the world. Emails from various countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have inspired me to continue to write about the War on Terror. Veterans and active members of our military and the military of other nations have written to share experiences or give support to our troops.

One of the emails came from a British production company that films the series "Weaponology" which can be viewed on the Military Channel. They were filming the second season of this program, Weaponology 2, which would focus on the various special operations forces throughout the world. One program was about the Army Rangers. I guess they couldn’t believe an old Ranger from the 1970s was still serving in the Army.

When this company asked to interview me, I had to go through my chain of command in the First Army all the way to the commanding general, Lieutenant General Russel Honore, to get permission for these guys to talk to me. The interview finally took place at the Orlando reserve center and the Army Ranger program first aired on December 18th.

So if you happen to watch this program on the Military Channel and you see a few segments with some old soldier named Grist – yeah, it is this old Vietnam/Iraq war veteran. (The above photo is me in Vietnam in 1970.)

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Another Christmas at War

Christmas at war is a lonely and sobering experience. The above photo shows part of the “Soldier’s Tree” my wife Debbie created. It is covered with red, white and blue lights and dozens of patriotic ornaments of all kinds. She put this tree together the Christmas before I went to Iraq. She has kept the tradition going and displays it every year.

The following tells about my own Christmas Eve in Vietnam in 1970:

* * * *

During the Christmas season of 1970, one of my squad leaders and I hitched a ride on a Vietnamese vegetable truck back to the Bien Hoa army base so we could watch the Bob Hope Christmas Show. Afterwards we hopped on a helicopter for a quick flight to the brigade headquarters at a firebase near Xuan Loc.

We were playing cards on this particular holiday night, drinking a lot of beer and feeling somewhat melancholy when we heard mortar rounds begin to hit the firebase. We were reminded that another soldier was recently wounded by a mortar only a few feet from our tent and the hole was still in the ground.

We looked at each other and someone said “Should we take shelter?” Almost in unison we said “Nah…” and continued to play cards. The explosions from the mortars stopped shortly thereafter.

I decided to take a break, so I walked to the bunker line along the perimeter. It was dark and I looked up at the moon and the stars as I thought about my family back in Orlando and how they must be enjoying the holidays.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of weapons firing near a local village in the valley below. When I looked into the dark valley, I saw tracer rounds arching into the sky. I recognized the red tracers of the friendly troops, but then I saw the green tracers of the enemy being fired in the opposite direction.

I don’t know why it struck me as funny (sick, war-time G.I. humor, I guess), but I realized that the tracers being fired by each side were the Christmas colors of red and green. All that could be seen in the darkness of the valley were the colored tracers as they crossed each other’s path.

For no particular reason, I softly sang, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…”

* * * *

Soldiers never forget where they were during their Christmas in a war zone – no matter how many decades pass.

Merry Christmas to our warriors throughout the world; may they pass the season and their tours in safety and return to their families as soon as possible.

And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Headed to War

After watching the unit train for months, we finally bid them farewell. They boarded their aircraft and flew away, going to a war that started before some of them even graduated from high school. (The above photo is my unit leaving for Iraq in 2004.)

I stood by the gate as they filed through and I shook hands with every single one of them: The officers, the sergeants and the young men and women they lead. Looking them in the eyes as I have so often over the years, it is impossible not to think the unthinkable.

There is that terrible chance some of them won’t come home. Because we are the ones who trained and prepared them for man’s most horrible game, we will track them carefully during their deployment. They know they can still call on us by phone, email or “snail” mail. If they need us, we will still try to help them, even from here, but their leadership is strong and they will do just fine.

We must have faith that we gave them the tools, the training and the leaders to fight their war. Fortunately, many of their officers and sergeants have already been to war – some more than once. They have the experience to mentor those wide-eyed youngsters who will set foot into their first war zone and face a dedicated, ruthless enemy.

May God bless and protect these warriors and may He safeguard their families at home.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Al Sadr's Quest for Power in Iraq

My “series” of posts on Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army continues.

Al Sadr may be trying to position himself in order to eventually declare that he is the “Mahdi” or “the guided one”. According to many fundamentalists, this individual will appear when Muslims are being oppressed throughout the world. The Mahdi will make war against those who are deemed to be oppressors. All Muslims will be joined together in peace and justice and the Mahdi will rule over all Arabs. According to believers, the Mahdi will even pray at Mecca with Jesus (“Isa” in the Quran).

Although Muqtada’s father was a high-ranking ayatollah, Muqtada has not even completed his formal religious training. This article talks about his quest for Islamic credentials:

* * * *

Iraq cleric Sadr eyes higher religious credentials

Reuters: December 14, 2007

KUFA, Iraq: Powerful Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is taking advanced Islamic studies in a bid to earn credentials that would allow him to issue religious decrees, a top aide to the young firebrand said on Friday.

Some senior figures in the Shi'ite clerical establishment view Sadr, who commands the feared Mehdi Army militia and has a bloc of legislators in parliament, as an upstart given his lack of scholarly achievement.

The anti-American cleric has a strong following among poor, urban Shi'ites across Iraq. Attaining higher religious credentials would likely enhance the influence of Sadr among majority Shi'ites, engaged in a power struggle for influence in the oil-rich south as foreign troops scale down their presence.

Senior aide Salah al-Ubaidi, speaking in the southern town of Kufa near the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, said Sadr was looking to gain the title of "Marji", a term used for a cleric who is qualified to make religious decisions for his followers.

"Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr is studying the Hawza like any other Shi'ite student who aims to reach the level of Ijtihad," Ubaidi told Reuters, referring to a term that describes a level that allows someone to issue religious decrees or "fatwas".

He said Sadr, who is believed to be in his 30s, was studying at Najaf, adding it was unclear how long it would take the cleric the achieve the credentials, but the process normally takes years.

Sadr's followers currently have to seek guidance on religious issues from clerics who have the necessary qualifications.

If Sadr succeeds, he could earn more respect from top Shi'ite clerics who have been unsettled by his rising following, which they believe stems from his respected father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein along with two of his sons in 1999.

Ubaidi denied Sadr was developing his religious stature to push for more influence in mainly Shi'ite southern Iraq, a region rich in oil reserves.

"He has no interest in public funds," Ubaidi said.

Sadr's main mass movement Shi'ite rival is the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), headed by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

Hakim also built his reputation partly through his father Muhsin al-Hakim, one of the most prominent Shi'ite scholars of recent times. But Abdel Aziz al-Hakim has a closer relationship to traditional clerics at the top of the hierarchy than Sadr.

Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, froze the activities of the Mehdi Army for six months in late August after some of his followers were blamed for sparking intra-Shi'ite violence at a major religious ceremony.

The U.S. military has welcomed the ceasefire and said it has helped bring down violence in Iraq.

Sadr has vowed to reorganise his militia and root out rebellious elements who are ignoring his commands and taking the law into their own hands.

(Reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf; writing by Mussab Al- Khairalla in Baghdad, Editing by Dean Yates and Ibon Villelabeitia)

* * * *

We must remember that the future of Iraq will ultimately be determined by Iraqis, not America and its Coalition partners.

Since Arabs have a history of following charismatic religious leaders, we should always look at the fundamentalist Islamic leaders who may be trying to position themselves as the “voice” of Islam. There are quite a few of these potential “wannabe Mahdis” including al Sadr, Osama bin Laden and the religious leaders in Iran.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mahdi Army Spreads Fear Through Intimidation

A couple of days ago, I posted a piece on Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army and the threat it poses to the future of Iraq. The American and Iraqi governments have already paid a heavy price in blood because they failed to deal with the Mahdi Army when it was a much smaller force. The ultimate price has yet to be determined.

Taliban-like threats and intimidation of the Iraqi people will not end any time soon. Muqtada al Sadr has big plans for himself and his militia. Those plans have nothing to do with democracy or the basic rights of man.

* * * *

Washington Post
December 13, 2007
Pg. 1

Iraq's Youthful Militiamen Build Power Through Fear;
Schoolgirls Told to Wear Scarves, Under Threat of Death

By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post Foreign Service

BAGHDAD -- On the first day of class, two male teenagers entered a girls' high school in the Tobji neighborhood, clutching AK-47 assault rifles. The young Shiite fighters handed the principal a handwritten note and ordered her to assemble the students in the courtyard, witnesses said.

"All girls must wear hijab," she read aloud, her voice trembling. "If the girls don't wear hijab, we will close the school or kill the girls."

That October day Sara Mustafa, 14, a secular Sunni Arab, also trembled. The next morning, she covered up with an Islamic head scarf for the first time. The young fighters now controlled her life. "We could not do anything," Sara recalled.

The Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is using a new generation of youths, some as young as 15, to expand and tighten its grip across Baghdad, but the ruthlessness of some of these young fighters is alienating Sunnis and Shiites alike.

The fighters are filling the vacuum of leadership created by a 10-month-old U.S.-led security offensive. Hundreds of senior and mid-level militia members have been arrested, killed or forced into hiding, weakening what was once the second most powerful force in Iraq after the U.S. military. But the militia still rules through fear and intimidation, often under the radar of U.S. troops.

"JAM is alive and well in Tobji, although they have gotten younger, like in many other areas," said Lt. Col. Steven Miska, using a military acronym derived from the militia's name in Arabic. For much of this year, his soldiers operated in Tobji.

The rise of this new generation is a reflection of the Mahdi Army's deep infiltration of society and could presage a turbulent resurgence of the militia as the U.S. military reduces troop levels. The emergence also highlights the struggle Sadr faces in his quest to control the capital and lead Iraq.

In late August, the 34-year-old cleric declared a freeze in operations, in part to exert more authority over his unruly, decentralized militia. Many followers stood down, so much that U.S. commanders give Sadr some credit for a downturn in violence this year. But some militia leaders have ignored Sadr's freeze, and their young, power-hungry foot soldiers may ultimately undermine the cleric's popular appeal.

"We have to show people we are not weak," said Ali, a 19-year-old Mahdi Army fighter in Tobji.

'I Was in Control. I Ruled'

Two years ago, Ali was unemployed. He recalled that he idolized his older cousins who were veteran Mahdi Army fighters. Like them, he was born and raised in Tobji, a wisp of a neighborhood in north-central Baghdad where every neighbor knows the other. Its official name is Salaam, or peace.

Ali and his cousins once befriended Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. But after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, sectarian violence shattered Tobji's tribal and social bonds. Suddenly sect was all that mattered to Ali, and the militia became his new family. He was 17.

Abu Sajjad, a 44-year-old former Mahdi Army fighter, remembered seeing a rise in disaffected, jobless recruits at the time. "They were nothing before they joined the Mahdi Army," said Abu Sajjad, who asked to be called by his nickname to protect his security. "The Mahdi Army will protect them better than their tribes or their families."

Older fighters quickly indoctrinated Ali. "They are Sunnis. We are Shia. They are not going to kick us out of Tobji," Ali recalled them saying.

Ali, tall and slim with wavy black hair, spoke on condition that his full name not be used, fearing arrest by U.S. forces and retaliation by the militia. He is trying to leave the militia and has joined the Iraqi army, which he keeps secret from his comrades. In separate interviews, Sunni and Shiite residents said that Ali was a well-known Mahdi Army member involved in several attacks.

Initially, Ali was assigned to a militia checkpoint. He searched cars and demanded that drivers give their tribal names, so he could determine their sect. "I was a teenager. I was in control. I ruled," said Ali, who during a four-hour interview wore a brown sweater and, like many Shiites, a silver ring on his left pinky. "If I told any car to stop, it would stop."

At the local Sadr office, recruits were given lessons in Shiite religion and Mahdi Army ideology, which centered on Shiite supremacy. The recruits were ordered to inform on anyone suspicious or breaking Islamic codes.

"They can convince anybody," Ali said. "If they tell you that your father is a bad man, you will be more than happy to kill your father."

Ali also worked in a barbershop. When customers discussed their lives, he took mental notes and later reported what he had heard to the Sadr office.

Four months after he joined, Ali fought his first street battle. He fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the house of a member of a Sunni tribe called the Egheidat, killing him. Ali said he felt remorse, which vanished as smiling, older fighters hugged him.

"You are a hero," one of them told Ali. "The rocket saved our lives."

Two Egheidat leaders, including Mustafa Salih, Sara's father, said that Ali was known to have fired RPGs during the battle, but they were unsure if he had killed anyone.

Mahdi Army commanders punished young fighters for disobeying orders. Offenders were taken to a room inside the Sadr office, filled with steel cables, whips and slabs of iron, where they were tortured. Ali said it was called "The Happiness Room."

Murder and Protection

On the streets of Tobji one recent day, clusters of girls headed to school in their uniforms, all wearing the hijab. The portrait of a serene Haider Hamrani, a 17-year-old militia fighter shot dead by U.S. forces, stared out from a billboard.

Young men with cellphones circled the neighborhood, which was plastered with images of Sadr. They drove mopeds on side streets or gathered on corners. Some wore jeans, others baseball caps, blending into the landscape. They were the early warning system, keeping watch for strangers and U.S. patrols.

"No one will suspect they are Mahdi Army," Ali said.

Today, more than half the militia here is under age 20, said Ali and another young fighter named Mahmoud. The new generation is heavily involved in the militia's income-generating schemes. They sell the cars of kidnap victims and rent out the houses of displaced Sunnis. The militia also demands payments from generator men supplying electricity. Each month, youths collect 5,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $4, in protection money from every household.

"The more flagrant, younger crowd tends to focus on organized crime and lining their pockets with cash," said Miska, the U.S. officer.

Many young militiamen appear to have become ruthless murderers, replacing older fighters who have been captured or gone underground. Ali said he took part in four killings, all of neighbors. After Ali informed the Sadr office that his childhood friend Wissam had joined the Iraqi army, several young militia members abducted him and his mother. First they shot Wissam. When his mother kneeled over his body, screaming and in tears, they shot her in the head, Ali and Mahmoud said.

Another neighbor, a divorced woman, was killed after Ali mentioned that he had heard on the street that she was a prostitute -- a crime in the view of the militia -- although he had no proof. One of her assassins, Ali said, was a 17-year-old named Saad, who had joined at age 15.

When young fighters are told to kill someone, Ali said, "they will kill that person the next day without hesitation."

Nearby, in the living room of his narrow two-story home, Abu Ali Hassan, a 42-year-old Sunni, has hung a portrait of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures, in case militia fighters visit. Each month, he hands them the 5,000 dinars, which he calls "extortion money."

He's noticed that older fighters have all but vanished. "They are running the neighborhood through these kids," said Hassan, a Transportation Ministry employee.

Like many areas in Baghdad, Tobji has experienced a decline in violent attacks. But most Sunnis who fled have yet to return, community leaders said. Those who remain live under constant fear that they are being monitored. This year, the militia started to deploy women as spies, Ali and other residents said.

Desperate, Hassan has befriended a few young militiamen on his street. "God forbid, if anything happens to me tomorrow, they will be useful to me," he said. "Now, they are the supreme power in our neighborhood."

Shiites as Victims

Increasingly, the militia's victims are Shiites.

Tobji's Shiite head of the local council, Abu Hussein Kamil, and another official were assassinated in August. Kamil, Ali said, had not given jobs to relatives of the militiamen and was suspected of collaborating with U.S. forces. "He was hurting his own people," Ali said.

In June, several young fighters tortured and killed a Shiite generator man because he would not give additional electricity to the house of a militia member, his family and neighbors said. "They call themselves the Mahdi Army, but they act like a gang," said Majid al-Zubaidi, 28, the man's brother. "They just want to show they are in control of everything. They want people to fear them."

"Now, both Sunni and Shia are upset with the Mahdi Army," Zubaidi said.

Abu Sajjad, the veteran fighter, said many older militiamen are also angry. The youths are tarnishing the militia's image as guardians of Shiites, he said. One day, he witnessed two young fighters on a moped drive up to a car and fatally shoot the driver, a Shiite who had publicly criticized Sadr. Abu Sajjad urged the Sadr office to punish the assailants, but nothing happened, he said.

The leaders of the office protect the shebab, as the young men are called in Arabic, Abu Sajjad said. "The shebab are their eyes in the neighborhood and are following their orders."

On another day, a 17-year-old fighter went to the Sadr office and complained that his parents had ordered him to leave the militia. The office threatened the family, said Abu Sajjad, who knows the teenager and his family.

The U.S. military has exploited this generational rift and the anger of residents, Miska said. His troops paid informers for tips that often led to raids and arrests. But some community leaders complained that the American military had also targeted moderate leaders who brought some discipline to the militia.

"It's hard to believe they can't distinguish between the good people and bad people," said Ali Khadim, 44, a prominent Shiite tribal leader. U.S. troops, he said, recently raided his own house, where his elderly parents live.

Schoolchildren 'Seduced'

Down the street from the Sadr office, the tan wall of a secondary school was covered with posters of Sadr and Imam Ali. A long black banner commemorated a Shiite holiday, as women covered in head-to-ankle abayas seemed to float by.

Inside some of Tobji's schools, young militiamen have pressured teachers to disclose exam answers and give high grades to relatives of Mahdi Army fighters. They have ordered them to give Shiite religious lessons to students, including Sunnis, according to teachers and parents.

"They have turned the schools into their safe houses," said Fadhil Hassan, who teaches at a school in Tobji that he asked not be named, fearing retaliation. A young fighter wanted by U.S. forces shows up every day, Hassan said, and sometimes hits students on the head or shoulder with a stick, separating Sunnis from Shiites.

Now, students with problems are also turning to the Mahdi Army, he added, and looking up to militiamen as role models.

"They are seduced by these young fighters," Abu Sajjad said. "When children get power and pistols, this is their biggest dream come true." By infiltrating the schools, he added, the fighters have found the most effective means of controlling Tobji. "Families will be terrified through their kids."

Following the arrests of Mahdi Army commanders, Tobji's tribes are trying to reassert themselves. But ancient rules built on honor and respect hold little sway over the new generation.

Khadim, the Shiite tribal leader, has tried to persuade several young fighters to leave. Only one did, he said.

Ali is trying to quit. He's in love with a Sunni woman from the neighborhood. If the militiamen learn of this, he fears he will be killed, he said.

Worried about his future, Mustafa Salih has added his name to a list of Sunnis keen to launch a sahwa -- or "awakening" -- protection force, like those the U.S. military has funded in other areas. The tipping point came when he saw his daughter, Sara, rush home from school in October, upset that she had to wear a hijab.

"Why plant extremist ideas in children?" Salih asked bitterly.

Today, Sara's head scarf has become a metaphor for the militia's grip on her neighborhood. "It feels like someone is choking me," she said.

* * * *

Remember that Muqtada al Sadr already controls a large percentage of the seats in the new Iraqi Parliament, giving his Iranian sponsors the eyes and ears they need to plan their own vision for the future of Iraq.

In reality, al Sadr and his militia are the "resident evil" of Baghdad and just as dangerous as the foreign terrorists or the Sunni insurgency.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Mahdi Army - Iran's Surrogate in Iraq

There will come a day when the United States largely pulls out of Iraq at the request of that nation’s leaders. If our goals are met, then a multi-party Iraqi government will be able to defend itself from outside aggressors and provide a stable, democratic environment that will protect the interests of all the various political factions.

One of the largest wild cards in the future of Iraq will remain Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, a Hezbollah-like militia that has opposed the American and Coalition presence since day one. When I was in Iraq in 2004, the Mahdi Army was already building its relationship with Iran and this militia became a force to be reckoned with. Many Americans died during al Sadr’s uprisings that year.

Al Sadr’s opposition seems surprising since we liberated Iraq’s Shiites from decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, such opposition isn’t surprising when we realize that Iraq’s most radical Shiites are simply an extension of the Iranian fundamentalist leaders who are the sworn enemies of America.

With Shiites comprising some 60% of the Iraqi population, this majority will surely lead the way toward the future of Iraq – whatever kind of future that may be.

This article from today’s Christian Science Monitor talks about the Mahdi Army of 2007. The above photo is Muqtada al Sadr:

* * * *

Christian Science Monitor
December 11, 2007
Pg. 1

Iraq's Sadr Uses Lull To Rebuild Army

By Sam Dagher, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

KARBALA, IRAQ -- For more than three months, the Mahdi Army has been largely silent. The potent, black-clad Iraqi Shiite force put down its guns in late August at the behest of Moqtada al-Sadr.

The move has bolstered improved security in Baghdad, even though the US says some Mahdi Army splinter groups that it calls "criminals" or "extremists" have not heeded Mr. Sadr's freeze.

Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south - from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.

Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah - a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.

"He is now in the process of reconstituting the [Mahdi] Army and removing all the bad people that committed mistakes and those that sullied its reputation. There will be a whole new structure and dozens of conditions for membership," says Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Mahamadawi, a turbaned cleric who commands Sadr's operation in Karbala.

Sheikh Mahamadawi says each fighter would have to be vouched for by fellow fighters in good standing and would have to undergo a series of physical and character tests. "He must have high morals, strong faith, and above all, be obedient."

Sadr is also said to have created a special force called the "golden one" to cleanse the ranks of the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi in Arabic, from unwanted members, according to militia and police sources.

One Mahdi Army fighter, who did not wish to be named, says safe houses have been rented in Najaf for senior militiamen from neighboring Diwaniyah, where a joint Iraqi-US crackdown on the militia has been under way for months.

He says militiamen are spending their time carrying out good deeds like giving blood and sweeping streets to endear themselves again to the masses. The name of the Mahdi Army has, in many areas, become associated with killings, kidnappings, and extortion.

During the freeze, he says, he continues to be in contact with members of his unit but has returned to his day job as a hotel receptionist in Najaf, where he awaits instructions from his commanders. "There is just bound to be another war as long as the occupation remains. Our main enemy is America."

The Mahdi Army's next phase

In recent weeks, Sadrists - many dressed in black and donning white cloaks to symbolize martyrdom - have marched in Baghdad and the south. The largest rally took place in Najaf on Nov. 15, when tens of thousands of militiamen were bused in from all over Iraq to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the killing of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, their spiritual leader and Sadr's father.

They paraded through Najaf's Valley of Peace cemetery, which was the scene of some of the worst fighting between the militia and the US in 2004. Celebrants flashed victory signs and shouted anti-American slogans. Those attending received a CD showing footage of purported roadside bombings planted by the militia against US forces and militiamen in training.

Mothers of Mahdi Army fighters killed since 2004 wept in a special section of the cemetery reserved for them. Like the Hizbullah cemeteries in Lebanon, hundreds of tombstones were festooned with artificial flowers and billboards praising the heroics of the so-called martyrs.

As for Sadr's intent, his spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi, says: "We have new visions for what the Mahdi Army will do in the next phase."

Mr. Obeidi explains that most Shiite parties have embraced the political process wholeheartedly and accept the presence of US forces, while the Sadrists, who continue to oppose it, need to keep their Army as a "national resistance force."

In his latest statement last week, Sadr said: "I tell the evil Bush, leave our land, we do not need you or your armies.... I tell the occupiers ... you have your democracy and we have our Islam; get out of our land."

And using language that could have been torn right out of the fiery speeches of Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, he urged the Mahdi Army to continue to abide by his freeze order for now.

The cleric warned the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against extending the mandate of US-led multinational forces. He blasted Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party and its allies, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI) and the Badr Organization, for targeting Sadrists. And he chided Iraqi security forces, many of them beholden to ISCI and Badr, for taking part in those anti-Sadrist operations.

The early history of Hizbullah, too, involved bloody internal fighting with a rival Shiite group and training by Iran before it became a skilled guerrilla group.

"Iran is definitely interested in having its own proxy political and military force in Iraq, just like Lebanon. Iran may try to wait a bit now to see who will emerge as the more dominant force," says Riad al-Kahwaji, a Dubai-based military expert on Iran. "All the indications so far are that [Iran] has invested a great deal in the Mahdi Army."

But, he adds, "it has been a bumpy start. The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah."

Shiite rivals do battle

The Mahdi Army freeze grew out of fierce battles in late August between ISCI and its affiliate, Badr, both headed by Sadr's archnemesis Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, in Karbala. In two days of fighting, more than 50 people were killed at the city's shrines during an important pilgrimage. The outside wall of the revered Imam Hussein mausoleum still bears the scars of the fighting.

Video footage of the clashes provided by Sadr's aides in Karbala shows black-clad men loyal to the cleric taunting guards, who are largely made up of Badr partisans, and then hurling shoes at them for refusing them entry into the shrine. Later, these guards are seen firing directly at throngs of pilgrims.

Mr. Maliki himself came down to Karbala at the time and gave police chief Brig. Gen. Raed Shaker, carte blanche to go after the Mahdi Army.

About 500 people were arrested at the time, including several provincial council members loyal to Sadr. General Shaker also declared publicly that the Mahdi Army was responsible for the assassination of at least 400 people in Karbala since 2004.

"These are only the bodies that we found," he said in an interview. "This is all documented. I am not doing this for any political agenda."

Umm Bassem says the Mahdi Army killed her son Bassem Hassoun, an Iraqi Army officer. She says they crippled her second son, Haidar.

"It's the fault of Sayyed [honorific] Moqtada; he encouraged them and armed them," says a tearful Umm Bassem, a nickname that means "mother of Bassem," as she clutches a portrait of her late son.

Mahamadawi, Sadr's aide in Karbala, says there may have been bad apples in the ranks of the Mahdi Army.

"We are not saying they are all angels, they are humans that can make mistakes; we have punished some and kicked out others," he says, adding that there is an intent by the government to sully the image of the Mahdi Army and finish it off. He also accuses the Karbala police of committing unspeakable crimes against the Sadrists including the killing of two children of a wanted militiaman in October and the torture of prisoners.

The assault on Sadr supporters

Anger against the police force, mixed with vows of revenge, reigns among the Daoum tribe in their village fiefdom on the outskirts of Karbala. Sixty-five of their members were among those arrested in the aftermath of the August events.

Muhammad Miri, who has been released since, lifts up his shirt to show scars on his back from what he says are from torture with wire cables. He says at least 22 prisoners were also sexually abused by police interrogators.

A police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says his claims are true. Widely circulated video footage also shows Hamid Ganoush, a Sadrist provincial council member, blindfolded and on his knees as he is being hit on the head with a shoe by interrogators who press him on the whereabouts of Ali Shria, a Karbala Mahdi Army leader, believed to be in Iran now.

The risk now is that these ever-deepening intra-Shiite feuds may also take on a tribal aspect.

A Baghdad-based US Department of Defense intelligence analyst, who tracks the Mahdi Army and who spoke on condition of anonymity, says intra-Shiite feuds in Iraq have always managed to sort themselves out, adding that he believes Sadr will maintain his freeze despite the rhetoric, as his paramount concern is political survival.

"It's working well. It's serving Sadr's interest well because it's solidifying his position as the clear leader ... and satisfying our desires to eliminate rogue criminal elements," he says. "I am not seeing any evidence that there is [a danger] that this is going to unravel."

Echoing recent remarks by top US military officials, he says that while there has been a decrease in roadside bombs - using Iranian armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) - against US troops, the militia's rogue elements still operate.

He blames recent bombings in Baghdad and mortar attacks on the Green Zone on Thanksgiving Day on these rogue elements. He also says a "massive" cache of Iranian-made arms was found in Diwaniyah recently, and on Dec. 1 a dealer of Iranian weapons was arrested in the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

"The guy was a major mover of lethal aid in his area," he says.

Some of these so-called rogue groups have also been blamed for the kidnapping of five Britons in May from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad. A group calling itself the "The Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq" released video footage of one of the hostages on Dec. 4 accompanied with a written statement demanding British troops leave Basra within 10 days.

Britain has pulled out from inside the city in September and now has only 4,500 soldiers left at an air base outside the city. The pullout of the bulk of this force is expected soon, leaving the Mahdi Army as the strongest armed group among its rivals in Basra.

Top US officials in Iraq have made no secret of their concern over Iranian plans to turn the Mahdi Army into another Hizbullah-like organization, pointing to their capture of a Hizbullah operative in March in Basra.

"His sole purpose in life was to come to Iraq to try to make JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi] a mirror image of Hizbullah," the Defense analyst says.

A senior official in Sadr's rival party, the ISCI, which is very close to the Iranian government, says Mr. Hakim received assurances from Iran at the highest level that they would rein in the hard-line factions within the Islamic Republic who might be supporting Sadr's militia.

"The events in Karbala embarrassed the Iranians," says the official, who requested anonymity, referring to the sanctity of the shrines to Shiite Iran. "There is a nationalist current in Iran, though, that does not want to see stability in Iraq ... this keeps us worried."

The Sadrists have long distanced themselves from Iran publicly and sought to portray themselves more as Arab nationalists.

Sadr's spokesman Obeidi says while the movement admires Iranian-backed Hizbullah, the Mahdi Army is different.

He says the US military and the Mahdi Army's Shiite rivals are trying hard to force the dismantling of Sadr's militia forming tribal councils across the Shiite south, much like the Americans did in Sunni parts of the country to combat Al Qaeda.

But, the spokesman says, this strategy isn't going to work in the south, where many of the tribesmen's sons are Mahdi fighters.

* * * *

Keep watching the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al Sadr and their partnership with Iran. When it comes to such Islamic fundamentalist relationships, all we can do is watch, wait and keep our weapons at hand.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Generations of Valor

This photograph needs no explanation....

* * * *

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

To my parent’s generation, the horrible date was December 7th; to the current generation it is September 11th. Both were sneak attacks resulting in thousands of casualties and permanent damage to the soul of our nation.

The “greatest generation” from the 1940’s struck back and defeated the Imperial Japanese military machine and their Nazi allies decisively and completely. Now the new “greatest generation” is fighting a world-wide battle against the latest form of fascism – brutal fundamentalist Islamic fascists who have their own dismal vision of how they would rule the world.

Perhaps Plato was right when he said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.

* * * *

On Sunday, December 7th, 1941 the Japanese launched a Surprise attack against the U.S. Forces stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. By planning his attack on a Sunday, the Japanese commander Admiral Nagumo, hoped to catch the entire fleet in port. As luck Would have it, the Aircraft Carriers and one of the Battleships were not in port. (The USS Enterprise was returning from Wake Island, where it had just delivered some aircraft.

The USS Lexington was ferrying aircraft to Midway, and the USS Saratoga and USS Colorado were undergoing repairs in the United States ).

In spite of the latest intelligence reports about the missing Aircraft carriers (his most important targets), Admiral Nagumo Decided to continue the attack with his force of six carriers and 423 aircraft.

At a range of 230 miles north of Oahu, he launched the first wave of a two-wave attack.

Beginning at 0600 hours, his First wave consisted of 183 fighters and torpedo bombers which Struck at the fleet in Pearl Harbor and the airfields in Hickam, Kaneohe and Ewa.

The second strike, launched at 0715 hours, consisted of 167 aircraft, which again struck at the same targets.

At 0753 hours the first wave consisting of 40 Nakajima B5N2 "Kate" torpedo bombers, 51 Aichi D3A1 "Val" dive bombers, 50 high Altitude bombers and 43 Zeros struck airfields and Pearl Harbor Within the next hour, the second wave arrived and continued the Attack.

When it was over, the U.S.losses were:

USA : 218 KIA, 364 WIA;
USN: 2,008 KIA, 710 WIA;
USMC: 109 KIA, 69 WIA;
Civilians: 68 KIA, 35 WIA.

TOTAL: 2,403 KIA, 1,178 WIA.

USS Arizona (BB-39) - total loss when a bomb hit her magazine.
USS Oklahoma (BB-37) - Total loss when she capsized and sunk in The harbor.
USS California (BB-44) - Sunk at her berth. Later raised and Repaired.
USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Sunk at her berth. Later raised and Repaired.
USS Nevada - (BB-36) Beached to prevent sinking. Later repaired.
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) - Light damage.
USS Maryland (BB-46) - Light damage.
USS Tennessee (BB-43) Light damage.
USS Utah (AG-16) - (former battleship used as a target) - Sunk.

USS New Orleans (CA-32) - Light Damage..
USS San Francisco (CA-38) - Light Damage.
USS Detroit (CL-8) - Light Damage.
USS Raleigh (CL-7) - Heavily damaged but repaired.
USS Helena (CL-50) - Light Damage.
USS Honolulu (CL-48) - Light Damage..

USS Downes (DD-375) - Destroyed. Parts salvaged.
USS Cassin - (DD-372) Destroyed. Parts salvaged.
USS Shaw (DD-373) - Very heavy damage.
USS Helm (DD-388) - Light Damage.

USS Ogala (CM-4) - Sunk but later raised and repaired.

Seaplane Tender
USS Curtiss (AV-4) - Severely damaged but later repaired.

Repair Ship
USS Vestal (AR-4) - Severely damaged but later repaired.

Harbor Tug
USS Sotoyomo (YT-9) - Sunk but later raised and repaired.

188 Aircraft destroyed (92 USN and 92 U.S. Army Air Corps.)

* * * *

This generation can never adequately express its gratitude to the original "greatest generation" for their courage, their determination and their sacifice during the heroic efforts that led to the total defeat of our enemies in World War II.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

With Al Qaeda Safe Havens, What Do They Expect?

"The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) on guerrilla warfare

The following article in today’s New York Times emphasizes once again that the Al Qaeda problem will never go away as long as the terrorists have safe havens in which to recruit, train and equip new “holy warriors”.

Our troops did a magnificent job in routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our self-imposed and “politically correct” rules of engagement have now put us on the defense, trapped within the borders of that country.

We won’t enter the tribal regions of Pakistan to squash the Al Qaeda bases, but the enemy continues to make its own rules. Their leaders are free to casually sip tea, read the Quran and plan their next terror attacks in safety.

The initiative belongs to them…

* * * *

New York Times
December 4, 2007

U.S. Senses A Rise In Activity By Al Qaeda In Afghanistan

By Thom Shanker

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 3 — American military and intelligence officials are detecting early signs that Al Qaeda may be increasing its activities in Afghanistan, perhaps even seeking to return to its former base of operations, a senior Defense Department official said Monday.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Kabul late Monday for meetings with government leaders and military commanders to discuss how to speed economic and political development at a time of increasing violence.

The senior Defense Department official, aboard Mr. Gates’s plane, said, “We are seeing early indicators that there may be some stepped-up activity by Al Qaeda.” No details were offered.

The official cautioned, “It’s pretty hard to pull trends out of a few indications,” but added that even tentative evidence of increased Qaeda activity in Afghanistan “is something we are concerned with.”

The official spoke on standard rules of anonymity to discuss intelligence on Al Qaeda and Mr. Gates’s agenda before the secretary’s third trip to Afghanistan during his first year in office.

Mr. Gates, in brief comments before landing in Kabul, said he was interested in how combat operations could be better woven into a “comprehensive development strategy” to include accelerated economic and political development.

“One of the clear concerns we all have is that in the last two or three years there has been an increase in the overall level of violence,” Mr. Gates said, adding that the rise in attacks and bombings was notable in southern Afghanistan, which had served as the Taliban’s spiritual base.

“I am not worried about a backslide as much as I am about how we continue the momentum going forward,” he added.

Officials said Mr. Gates also planned to assess whether the recent political turmoil in neighboring Pakistan had given greater freedom of movement to Taliban and Qaeda forces in tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Pentagon and military officials said the higher number of attacks and roadside bombings could be attributed to increased money for the insurgency from foreign sources and profits from domestic poppy production. The officials also attribute the increase in violence to the sanctuary provided in tribal areas of Pakistan that has allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup.

Mr. Gates spent most of Monday in Djibouti, in eastern Africa, to inspect one of the most unusual missions in the American military. The operation, called Task Force Horn of Africa, has not captured or killed a single terrorist or foreign fighter, yet it is viewed by Pentagon officials as a model military deployment.

The task force’s mission is to apply the “soft power” Mr. Gates advocated in a Nov. 26 speech at Kansas State University, when he said American counterterrorism efforts required not only combat operations, but also a broader range of economic development and diplomacy.

American combat personnel in Djibouti train regional armed forces to strengthen their own counterterrorism abilities. Combat engineers build schools and hospitals and dig wells in an effort to promote stability and prevent terrorists from taking root.

In his first trip to Djibouti, Mr. Gates visited Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion compound that is home to the 2,000 troops in the task force and support missions. The operation is already shaping the way the Pentagon will organize its efforts in coming years.

The American military is organizing a new Africa Command, the first American combatant command dedicated solely to Africa. The lessons learned from the operation in Djibouti will shape the command’s emphasis on defense as well as on diplomacy and development, according to senior Pentagon officials.

The mission was first devised to trap terrorists expected to flee Afghanistan along traditional smugglers’ routes down the Persian Gulf, into the Arabian Sea and past the Horn of Africa.

But the overlapping ground, maritime and air patrols across the region appear to have deterred the use of that route.

American intelligence and military officers say Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups continue to move through the region, with small numbers believed to be operating in ungoverned parts of Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen.

* * * *

The only path to victory in war is to turn the enemy’s offense into the enemy’s defense. As long as we remain on the defense in any war, we are simply reacting to the enemy’s tactics and he is the one who chooses when and where the next battles will be fought.

Such is the nature of guerrilla war…

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Read "The Advisor" from Iraq (Part 2)

Apparently there is some difficulty with the link in my previous post. Try this one and, hopefully, it will lead you to a site where you have access to the advisor as well as other useful information:

Let me know if you have problems.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Read "The Advisor" from Iraq

I would encourage everyone to subscribe to "The Advisor", a PAO newsletter from Iraq. Go to this link to read the current issue:

To subscribe yourself, here is the contact information:

The Advisor Staff
MNSTC-I Public Affairs
Baghdad, Iraq
Email Address:

Good information from "the horse's mouth", so-to-speak...

SFC Chuck Grist