Dividing the Mahdi Army
Multinational Forces Iraq is negotiating with elements of the Mahdi Army
With Muqtada al-Sadr now in Iran, the Iraqi government and Coalition forces are stepping up efforts to divide and conquer his Mahdi Army. Asharq Alawsat has confirmed that Multinational Forces Iraq (MNF-I) is "holding talks with commanders of Muqtada al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army with the 'Iraqi Government's blessing,'" as well as "several Iraqi armed group."
Major General Bill Caldwell, the MNF-I spokesman, went to explain that the Mahdi Army isn't commanded from the top-down, and there is room to divide the group and get elements to lay down their arms. "The Al-Mahdi Army is so fractured, and for example, we might speak to one group in Baghdad, but another group in Basra would be different... It would be irresponsible not to pursue all avenues - the political part of the plan means engagement and bringing all into the political process." Some groups are beyond the political process. "There are irreconcilable groups, that includes al Qaeda and Shia extremist elements that we view as being irreconcilable - these are often personality based rather than group-based," said Maj Gen Caldwell.
The military and intelligence sources we speak to disagree with the assessment that there are "rogue elements" of the Mahdi Army. Strong evidence that Sadr maintains a high degree of command and control can be seen when Sadr ordered his fighters to not oppose the Baghdad Security Plan. The sectarian violence dropped immediately (from 1,222 deaths in December 2006 to 494 in February 2007) and the Mahdi Army fighters abandoned their check posts in Sadr City and elsewhere.
The "rogue element" narrative provides Mahdi Army fighters and commanders an 'out.' They can choose to oppose the government and be targeted, or step aside and join the political process. Multinational Forces Iraq has refused to categorize the Mahdi Army as the "irreconcilable," to give them this out. This also works for Sadr himself, although this is unlikely as he maintains his power by maintaining the militia.
While the negotiations with elements of the Mahdi Army proceed, Iraqi Special Forces, backed by U.S. trainers, continue to target Mahdi Army cells, which are rounded up on a near daily basis. As of January 22, over 500 members of the Mahdi Army are in custody. Two days ago, Special Iraqi Army Forces captured 5 members of the Mahdi Army in Husayniyah. Today, U.S. and Iraqi troops conducted raids throughout Sadr City, Muqtada's stronghold in Baghdad, and 16 Mahdi fighters were detained. The Vice Minister of Health, a member of Sadr's political block, was arrested and is "facing charges of aiding the militia of the Mahdi Army by appointing many of its members in the ministry."
The rumor in Baghdad is that Sadr himself is "doing some very deadly housecleaning," as "Mahdi Army members have been disappearing or turning up dead in the Sadr City, Kadhimiya, and Baladiyat areas of the capital." But Iraqi and Coalition forces have been conducting a shadow war against Sadr since last summer. The purging is being done by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
It is no surprise that Sadr chose this time to flee to Iran and denounce the Baghdad Security Plan (although a Sadr aide is now backtracking on this statement.) The pressure has been stepped up on Sadr and his Mahdi Army. While Sadr is taking refuge in Iran, he is sending a message to his lieutenants they are on their own. Some will begin to act on their own, too.