Sadr City's Lesson for Gaza
By Glen Tschirgi
Israel faces a Faustian bargain in Gaza: destroy Hamas utterly -- which appears impossible for all practical purposes -- or reach a cease fire that inevitably allows Hamas to re-arm and fight another day. Either way, Israel seems to be fighting a lost cause. There may, however, be another approach that succeeded under similarly unfavorable circumstances: the "Gold Wall" of Sadr City, Iraq.
As Nathan Hodge observed in a recent article for Danger Room, there are striking similarities between the current dilemma facing Israel and the one confronting the United States in Baghdad in March, 2008.
For months, Moqtada al Sadr's Shiite militia, the Jaish al Mahdi ("JAM"), had increased the tempo and accuracy of rocket and mortar attacks against the Green Zone from bases in Sadr City. With a population of over two million, mostly poor Shiites, the prospects for stopping the attacks were bleak. At the time, the unchallenged assumption was that JAM enjoyed widespread support throughout Sadr City. Defeating JAM would likely entail heavy casualties. Nonetheless, the attacks could no longer be ignored by the U.S. or Prime Minister Maliki.
Surprisingly, U.S. forces eschewed a Fallujah-style, urban assault and, instead, embarked upon a bold strategy of bisecting the southern portion of Sadr City in order to push JAM rocket and mortar teams out of range of the Green Zone. Amidst fierce fighting with JAM, U.S. forces erected what came to be known as, "the Gold Wall," a two mile, concrete barrier which allowed Coalition forces to carve out a tightly-controlled enclave in Sadr City and end the attacks.
Construction of the Gold Wall, however, did not only result in an end to attacks against the Green Zone. Just as importantly, the Gold Wall effected a dramatic political change. Once the citizens behind the Gold Wall were confident of continuing protection from JAM reprisals, businesses re-opened, security improved dramatically and actionable intelligence from the population soared. The assumption that the Sadr City population unquestionably supported JAM proved false.
Perhaps this should have been more obvious in hindsight. It was immediately apparent to al Sadr's militia that the construction of the wall directly threatened their control over the local population. As a result, JAM threw everything they had against the wall in order to stop its construction. This played straight into U.S. technological strengths: UAV real-time surveillance coupled with smart munitions delivered crippling blows to JAM. The losses proved fatal to JAM, resulting in a May 2008 cease-fire which effectively disbanded the militia and turned control of Sadr City, JAM's former bastion, over to the Iraqi Army. Incredibly enough, all this was accomplished at a cost of only six dead compared to an estimated 700 JAM members.
Could a so-called "Gold Wall Strategy" work in Gaza?