Must read: U.S. troops say Iraqi army in Baghdad is filthy with JAM

How often do I tell you something’s a must read?

It’s a must read.

[W]hile Iraq’s other main Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, concentrated in 2005 on packing Iraqi intelligence bureaus with high-level officers who could coordinate sectarian assassinations, al-Sadr went after the rank and file.

His recruits began flooding into the Iraqi army and police, receiving training, uniforms and equipment either directly from the U.S. military or from the American-backed Iraqi Defense Ministry…

Al-Sadr’s gunmen got another boost in 2005 and 2006 when American commanders handed over many Baghdad neighborhoods east of the Tigris River to Iraqi units, transitions that often were accompanied by news releases that contained variations of the phrase “Iraqis in the lead.”…

In hindsight, many American officers said there was too much pressure to give Iraqi army units their own areas of operation, a process that left Iraqi soldiers outmanned, outgunned and easy targets for infiltration and coercion.

“There was a decision … that was probably made prematurely,” said Lt. Col. Eric Schacht, a 42-year-old battalion commander in east Baghdad from Glen Mills, Pa. “I think we jumped the gun a little bit.”

And now?

“Half of them are JAM. They’ll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night,” said 1st Lt. Dan Quinn, a platoon leader in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, using the initials of the militia’s Arabic name, Jaish al Mahdi. “People (in America) think it’s bad, but that we control the city. That’s not the way it is. They control it, and they let us drive around. It’s hostile territory.”

This sounds familiar, too:

Amid recurring reports that al-Sadr is telling his militia leaders to stash their arms and, in some cases, leave their neighborhoods during the American push, U.S. soldiers worry that the latest plan could end up handing over those areas to units that are close to al-Sadr’s militant Shiite group.

“All the Shiites have to do is tell everyone to lay low, wait for the Americans to leave, then when they leave you have a target list and within a day they’ll kill every Sunni leader in the country. It’ll be called the `Day of Death’ or something like that,” said 1st Lt. Alain Etienne, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “They say, `Wait, and we will be victorious.’ That’s what they preach. And it will be their victory.”

Quinn agreed.

“Honestly, within six months of us leaving, the way Iranian clerics run the country behind the scenes, it’ll be the same way here with Sadr,” said Quinn, 25, of Cleveland. “He already runs our side of the river.”

Exit question: what now?

Update (Bryan): In the interests of braking the panic that this story is creating a little bit, the troops at FOB Justice were candid with Michelle and I about the state of the Iraqi security forces. Are they “filthy with JAM?” In the case of the police, yes. In the case of the army, less so. That’s one of several reasons that the IA tends to be more effective and more trusted on the street than the police. The US troops on FOB Justice share their base with both Iraqi Army and police, both of which they are training, so they are in a position to know about the infiltration and to be aware of what can be done about it.

The fact is, our troops are attempting to create legitimate Iraqi security forces in the middle of a war, and in a country where security forces were an arm of Saddam prior to 2003. So history is against us being able to create hermetically sealed security forces from scratch. The war these forces are being stood up in the midst of includes a whole lot of factions who all have an interest in infiltrating the forces that we’re trying to stand up, so it shouldn’t be a total shock that they’re trying and in too many cases succeeding. The troops are the least shocked. That doesn’t mean that they don’t see infiltration as a problem; they do. But they’re aware of it, they’re not panicked by it as far as I can tell and they are working to weed out the bad guys. That takes time, something Congress seems increasingly of a mind not to grant.

The case of JAM is, as I’ve mentioned before, not as simple as the press usually makes out. Of the entire JAM militia, probably half are truly loyal to al-Sadr. The other half joined up for various reasons from needing the money to being threatened if they don’t join to having a grudge against Sunnis to wanting to tamp down local petty crime, etc. JAM isn’t a monolithic force in the way that Al Qaeda is, all joined by one ideal. There are factions within it, and those factions can be and are being exploited politically by the US forces. That also takes time. I will say that all the panic in Washington these days strengthens the hand of Sadr, since he seems to be on the winning side right now and everyone who chose to side with us seems to be on the losing side. The momentum right now is undoubtedly with the Sadrists, not because of the infiltration, but because anyone who is on the fence in Baghdad is being compelled by events to choose a side, and one side appears to be running away. The rational choice for an awful lot of people will be to join the side that is staying and looks like it will have a great deal of power after we’ve withdrawn. Had we stayed and not shown so much panic over the years, those who sided with us would be in a stronger position in Iraqi society than they may be in the coming months and years–if they survive that long.

None of this is to minimize the threat of militia infiltration into the ISF. But stories like the one above present the negative gotchas–see here, the whole Iraqi military is nothing but JAM–while leaving out the positive things our troops might have said about the ISF or how they see the infiltration being dealt with. The same troops at FOB Justice who were candid with us about JAM infiltration in the ISF also noted that some units are standing up fairly well and some are taking their missions very seriously and doing them well. You’ll hear about that in a bit more detail in tomorrow’s Vent, actually.