U.S. vs. the Mahdi Army
U.S. and Iraqi forces mix it up with Sadr's Mahdi Army at a Baghdad Mosque, around 20 Madhi fighters killed
U.S. forces appear to have struck at Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite Madhi Army at a "husseiniya" (a Shi'ite house of worship) in Baghdad. Belmont Club rounds up reports from Zayed at Healing Iraq and the BBC. The Washington Post also reports on the event but states Iraqi forces were involved in the battle. U.S. military has yet to confirm the incident. The news accounts indicate anywhere from 18 to 21 Madhi militiamen were killed during the raid. No word on any U.S or Iraqi Army casualties. In a seemingly unrelated incident, Sadr's home in Najaf was the target of a mortar attack.
The impending fight against the Shiite militias, and particularly Sadr's Mahdi Army, has been telegraphed for some time. On March 18, Strategy Page predicted the ensuing conflict:
The U.S. has told Iran that the Iraqi Shia militias being supported by Iran (the Sadr and Badr organizations) are going to get taken apart soon, and Iran is well advised to back off when this happens. Hardliners in the already hard line Iranian government, have been helping Badr, Sadr and smaller groups, in order to keep the atmosphere hostile for the United States in Iraq. This has not been particularly popular in Iraq, because it's obvious that the Americans chased Saddam out of power, and made it possible for Shia to run the country. But to old school Iranian Islamic radicals, hating and hurting the United States is more important than anything else.
Earlier this week, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, accused Iran of sponsoring the Shiite militias and inciting sectarian violence, and alluded to a future reckonning with the militias; "The militias haven't been focused on decisively yet. . . . That will be tough," Ambassador Khalilzad said. "More Iraqis in Baghdad are dying -- if you look at the recent period of two, three weeks -- from the militia attacks than from the terrorist car bombings." On Saturday, Ambassador Khalilzad indicated "The militias need to be under control."
The Washington Post reports U.S. forces have also "raided an Interior Ministry building and arrested 40 policemen after discovering 17 non-Iraqi prisoners in the facility. Police 1st Lt. Thayer Mahmoud said the arrested police were being held for investigation, but the reason was not known. Mahmoud said the U.S. forces remained at the building and were guarding the 17 foreigners." Meanwhile, 30 men were beheaded and dumped near Baquba. It is automatically assumed the murders were the result of Shiite militias, but the New York Times rightfully notes "The area where they were discovered is mostly Sunni Arab and controlled by Sunni insurgents. It would be very difficult for Shiite death squads to operate there. Interior Ministry officials said they did not have enough information tonight to identify the victims."
The move against Sadr's militia and elements in the Interior Ministry may be isolated incidents, or may be the opening rounds of a campaign to defang the radical Shiite elements inside and outside the government. If the move is a concerted campaign against the radical militias, this indicates the U.S. and Iraqi Army are calculating there is enough 'space' to take on a second front; the security forces can safely handle both the Sunni led insurgency and combat operations against Sadr's Madhi Army. Another possibility is the rogue militias can no longer safely be ignored, as their actions have now exceeding the threshold of tolerable violence and threaten to plunge the nation into civil war.
It should be remembered Sadr's Madhi Army was thoroughly routed in Najaf during the Summer of 2004, with an estimated 2,000 plus of his fighters killed during a U.S. and Shiite assault on his forces. Sadr may have a following, but there are plenty of Shiites who do not support his antics, including the most powerful Shiite in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani.