Intelligence disputes Pentagon on militia's troop strength

Thursday, April 8, 2004

U.S. estimates of the numbers of Shi'ite militia now fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq ranges widely in a dispute that pits the U.S. Army against U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies.

The U.S. Army has determined that the Mahdi Army of Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada Sadr has no more than a few thousand combatants.

But intelligence analysts both inside and outside the U.S. government provided higher estimates of Sadr's force. They said that contrary to the assessment of the U.S. army and the Defense Department, Sadr has actually bolstered his militia over the last six months. They said this has resulted in a force strength of up to 10,000 trained and equipped militia members.

On Wednesday, the Mahdi Army forced Ukrainian troops in the U.S.-led coalition to withdraw from the southern city of Kut, Middle East Newsline reported. The Mahdi Army has also succeeded in maintaining control over Najaf while coalition forces remain outside the city. For his part, Sadr has attempted to coordinate his campaign with the Sunni insurgency.

The disparity in estimates has become a key issue as U.S. and coalition troops battle Sadr's forces in cities throughout central and southern Iraq.

Military officials said the strength of the Mahdi Army diminished over the last six months amid disappointment by Shi'ites with the level of salaries and financial support by Sadr. But officials could not rule out the prospect that Sadr recruited thousands of new fighters over the last few weeks to help prepare for his campaign against the coalition.

"We are now understanding more and more about the Mahdi Army," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of coalition operations, said, "how they operate, where they operate, against whom they operate."

Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that Sadr's forces number between 1,000 and 6,000 people. Myers said the Mahdi Army, which he termed "thugs and gangs that would associate themselves with Sadr," has been active in Amara, Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Kut and particularly Najaf.

"Sadr used the period of quiet between October 2003 and the present to expand his capabilities," Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said. "His Mahdi Army, which consists of some 6,000-10,000 militants, now seems better organized, better armed, and more capable."

Analysts said the Mahdi Army demonstrated its capabilities in March. At the time, Sadr's forces carried out a coordinated mortar and infantry strike on the gypsy village of Qawliya.

Sadr's forces destroyed Qawilya before expelling its residents. Emboldened by this show of force, the analysts said, the Mahdi Army marched into Baghdad on April 3 and on the following day attacked Iraqi police stations in that city.

"The spread of opposition to the U.S. occupation to include the formerly moderate Shia is an ominous development," Ivan Eland, a former defense analyst at the Congressional Budget Office and senior fellow at the Oakland, Calif.-based Independent Institute, said. "The United States has been put in the position of choosing between a mild response to the uprisings, making it look weak, and a more aggressive response that will likely further radicalize the moderate Shia, and eventually lose the war in Iraq."

For his part, White said in an analysis for the Washington Institute that Sadr linked to the assassination of a leading Shi'ite cleric in April 2003 could no longer be ignored by the U.S.-led coalition. He said U.S. options include an offensive against Sadr and his aides, a truce, or an alliance with other Shi'ite leaders to control Sadr.

"Sadr's radicalism and willingness to violently oppose the coalition constitutes the first serious Shi'i security challenge to the coalition," White said. "If he and his supporters are not dealt with effectively, the coalition's nightmare scenario of widespread armed Shi'i resistance will become a reality. Such a development would stretch coalition military assets to the breaking point."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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