Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Mahdi Army in the Cross Hairs

When the government went into Basra, it went in with the expectation of taking control of the ports and arresting criminals using the Sadr brand to conduct gangsterism on a scale that would have made Al Capone envious. Unexpectedly, the entirety of the Mahdi Army rose up with the hand of the Iran clearly behind it. Not only did the Sadrists lose, but it seems to have kicked off the end game as far as Sadr's Mahdi Army is concerned. The populace - the vast majority of whom have no militia affiliation - are highly critical of Sadr and his militia. The government is now moving to disarm the Mahdi Army both in Basra and Sadr City. Additionally, Maliki has introduced legislation that would require the Mahdi Army to disarm and bar Sadr from participating in politics until he disbands his militia.


This from the Washington Times:

Tribal leaders in southern Iraq are starting to push back against Iranian-supported militias in Basra, cracking their hold over the economically crucial province, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker said yesterday at two separate roundtable interviews with reporters.

The militia led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr "is something that has to be dealt with," said Gen. Petraeus at a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon.

"The population has turned against the militia in most areas in Basra. Interestingly, it has turned against them in a number of areas in Baghdad as well," the top U.S. commander in Iraq said, though he cautioned that turning against the militias does not necessarily mean that the population "will act on it."

Mr. Crocker said he had returned from a recent visit "sobered by the extent ... the militias had free rein in Basra."

The U.S. envoy added that he got "an earful" of complaints from southern sheiks about the behavior of the militias, who are believed to be influenced and supplied by Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "tapped into this" frustration and the Iraqis now are "standing up tribal lines as contract security forces" to help battle the Shi'ite militias, Mr. Crocker said, although he did not say whether these tribal forces had participated in the battles in Basra in the last two weeks. . . .

Mr. al-Maliki's decision at the end of March to confront the militias in Basra and regain control of Iraq's second-largest city has been praised by U.S. officials. He also won a measure of political support from Sunni and Kurdish groups, and gained credibility from some Shi'ites fed up with the militias' violent street tactics.

Although Sheik al-Sadr is able to rally large numbers of armed supporters, the level of his control over all the militia who claim loyalty to him has been questioned. A U.S. defense official familiar with Sheik al-Sadr said that the sheik has been viewed as "erratic" by both the Iranians and some of his own people.

But he remains an important political figure; his followers walked out of the current Cabinet and still hold a strong bloc in the Iraqi parliament.

"He is a significant political figure, and clearly, if he is willing to work within — we want him to work within the political process in Iraq," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday he felt Sheik al-Sadr was "somewhat of an enigma" and it was not clear what would happen next.

"I think Sadr clearly is a very important and key player in all this. Exactly where he's headed and what impact he'll have long-term I think is out there still to be determined," Adm. Mullen said.

In 2004, Sheik al-Sadr's followers led an uprising against the U.S. and Iraqi authorities that quickly spread through central and southern Iraq before it was crushed in Najaf. His followers also helped to push the country to civil war with attacks against Sunnis after a Shi'ite holy mosque in Samarra was bombed in February 2006. . . .

Read the entire article.

Two reports from Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal discuss the latest happenings of great consequence in Iraq:

Three weeks after the Iraqi government initiated Operation Knights Assault in Basrah, US and Iraqi forces have squared off against the Mahdi Army daily in the Shia slums of Sadr City. Additional US and Iraqi forces have moved into northeastern Baghdad to prepare for a possible major engagement against the Mahdi Army.

While Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist political movement, called for his fighters to pull off the streets on March 30, the Mahdi Army has continued to attack US and Iraqi forces in Sadr City and northeastern Baghdad. The Mahdi Army began seeding the streets of Sadr City with roadside bombs just days after Sadr declared the unilateral ceasefire. "Outlaw groups have planted roadside bombs and other explosives in most of the streets of Sadr City," the Baghdad Operational Command reported.

The Mahdi Army has attacked US and Iraqi patrols on a daily basis. The Sadrists are also advertising the results of these operations. "Witnesses and al-Sadr's office said loudspeaker announcements broadcast from mosques offered updates about Mahdi Army attacks on US military vehicles," CNN reported, indicating the truce called by Sadr at the end of February and again at the end of March is all but dead.

US and Iraqi forces have begun to shape the battlefield in Sadr City by cordoning off the main entry and exit points, building new check posts, instituting a vehicle ban, conducting a series patrols and humanitarian missions, carrying out targeted raids against Mahdi Army and Special Groups leaders, and providing a blanket of aerial coverage from unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters from US Army air weapons teams.

The Mahdi Army has responded violently to the efforts to establish a presence inside Sadr City. . . .

Supporters of Sadr have indicated the offensive so far is eroding the Mahdi Army's power base. US and Iraqi troops have been operating largely on the edges of Sadr City, but the Sadrists are concerned the forces will push into the heart of the district. "Sadrist officials ... had received orders from their headquarters in Najaf to avoid confrontations with Iraqi and US forces unless the Americans try to move deep into Sadr City," The Associated Press reported.

The Sadrists are also concerned the prolonged offensive will weaken the party and the Mahdi Army. "The officials said the Sadrist leadership was concerned that the ongoing clashes were turning into a war of attrition that was weakening the movement and undermining support within its Shiite power base," the AP reported.

Operations ongoing in Basrah

While the focus of the fighting has shifted to the capital city, Iraqi and US forces continue to target the Mahdi Army in the strategic port city of Basrah. Iraqi security forces captured 14 "criminals" during three separate raids throughout the city. "Fourteen wanted suspects were arrested, and a large number of roadside bombs, missiles, machine guns, and air defense guns were seized in the operations," Major General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, the operations chief for the Ministry of Interior said on April 12. Iraqi troops cordoned off four neighborhoods and conducted searches.

The raids pare art of the government's efforts to free Basrah of militia control. On April 9, Khalaf said Iraqi security forces would conduct operations to seize weapons from those who would not turn them in as part of the amnesty. "Security forces will start targeting gunmen who did not made use of the amnesty opportunity to hand in their weapons," Khalaf said, noting that thousands of light, medium, and heavy weapons were turned in before the amnesty expired. . . .

Read the entire article. And today at the LWJ:

The Iraqi government has committed to wresting Sadr City from the control of Shia militias, an Iraqi government spokesman and a US military spokesman said in a press briefing today in Baghdad.

"We will continue until we secure Sadr City. We will not come out, we will not give up until the people of Sadr City have a normal life," Ali al Dabbagh, the spokesman for the government of Iraq, told AFP. "(Security forces) will do what they have to do to secure the area. I can't tell you how many days or how many months but they will not come out until they have secured Sadr City."

The US military has stated it will support the Iraqi government in its plan to secure Sadr City. Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, said the operations have intensified over the past week and US forces are backing the Iraqi military. "Under the direction of the Prime Minister, the Iraqi security forces have redoubled their efforts in recent days in certain parts of Baghdad, including Sadr City," Driscoll said. "Coalition Forces continue to support the Iraqi security forces in these operations, focused on securing districts that have suffered from the abuse and neglect of criminal groups and outlaws."

The Long War Journal has been able to identifynine US combat battalions operating in and around the Sadr City region, along with three Iraqi Army brigades and a National Police brigade. US Stryker units are engaged with Mahdi Army forces in and around Sadr City. Multinational Forces Iraq has traditionally used the Strykers as the lead assault elements during past operations. The US has also stepped up air weapons teams and unmanned Predator strikes against Mahdi Army cells operating in the open in Sadr City.

Humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Sadr City and other Shia neighborhoods have been committed in the wake of operations. "Without improved security it is difficult to provide essential services so that people can live their lives peacefully and freely," Driscoll said. "The Iraqi Government, with the support of the Coalition, will continue to focus efforts to establish local security, and are committed to following security with the delivery of essential services, such as health, electricity, water, sewage, and trash disposal." On April 12, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordered additional humanitarian supplies be sent to Sadr City.

The Iraqi government and US military have made an effort to disassociate the current fighting with the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army. "The government doesn't send its forces after any political bloc," Dabbagh said. "Anyone who is carrying a weapon illegally will be prosecuted. It is not dependent on their political persuasion, whether they be in the Sadrist trend or any other bloc." Driscoll continued to call the targets of the raids "criminals."

But the Sadrist Movement and the Mahdi Army have been clear they are conducting attacks against US and Iraqi forces. The Sadrist have been advertising the results of their operations against US forces in Sadr City. The Sadrists have also said they have received operational orders from senior leaders based out of Najaf to hold off major attacks unless US and Iraqi forces enter the heart of Sadr City.

Sadr himself has said the Mahdi Army would continue to oppose the US presence in Iraq. "You have always been my enemy,” Sadr said in a statement received by Al Alam. "And you will always be my enemy till the last drop of my blood." Sadr said his Mahdi Army and political movement would continue to oppose the US presence in Iraq in a "way that we consider suitable." . . .

Sadr and his political movement have become increasingly isolated since the fighting began in Basrah, Baghdad, and the South. The Iraqi government, with the support of the political parties, said the Sadrist political movement would not be able to participate in upcoming provincial elections if it failed to disband the Mahdi Army. On April 13, The cabinet approved legislation that prevents political parties that have militias from contesting provincial elections this year. The bill will now be sent to parliament for approval. Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the senior most Shia cleric in Iraq, said the Mahdi Army was not above the law and should be disarmed.

Read the entire article.

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