Sadr delivers sermon in Kufa after returning from Iran in May. [AP Photo] Click to view.
As Muqtada al Sadr’s self-imposed six-month cease-fire for the Mahdi Army nears an end, the war of words and between Multinational Forces Iraq and the Mahdi Army has heated up. Over the past several days, Multinational Forces Iraq has stated the attacks from the Special Groups have intensified, while leaders within the Mahdi Army are calling for an end to the cease-fire.
Multinational Forces Iraq noted the attacks from the Iranian-backed Special Groups have intensified in two press releases over the past several days. On Feb. 3, a press release stated January 2008 has seen the highest rate of attacks from Special Groups terror cells in over a year.
“Extremists have been responsible for a spike in the number of roadside bombs placed over the past month, especially explosively formed penetrators,” the press release stated. “There were 12 EFP attacks against Coalition Forces in January – the highest monthly total in more than a year.”
While the Mahdi Army or the Special Groups were not specifically named, the mode (EFPs) and the location (just outside of Sadr City) of the attacks point to the Shia terror groups. Multinational Forces Iraq has routinely referred to the Special Groups as “extremists,” while Sadr City is a stronghold of Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Multinational Forces Iraq has implicitly linked the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups in the past by urging Sadr to maintain the cease-fire when reporting attacks by and raids against the Special Groups.
Two days later on Feb. 5, a second press release reported an EFP attack on US forces in the eastern Baghdad district of Adhamiyah. “On average, there has been an EFP attack approximately once every three days, over the last 35 days,” the press release noted. “The attacks have wounded Multi-National Division – Baghdad Soldiers and killed Iraqi civilians, including a woman and a child, Jan. 18.”
Today, the military denied rumors its forces raided a mosque in the city of Horriya in northern Baghdad province. Instead, forces were moved to the region after “security reports indicated that Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army groups ordered owners of the commercial stores in al-Horriya region to close their stores because they will launch military operations.”
The Iraqi Police have also leveled a charge against the Mahdi Army after an attack on a Polish military convoy in the southern city of Diwaniyah. The IED strike resulted in four civilians killed and two civilians and seven Iraqi security forces wounded. An Iraqi colonel accused the Mahdi Army of conducting the strike, while the Sadrists denied any involvement. Diwaniyah has been the scene of multiple battles between the Iraqi security forces and the Mahdi Army.
While Multinational Forces Iraq and the Iraqis security forces have stepped up the war of words against Sadr and his Mahdi Army, Sadr has polled his lieutenants within the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army for their opinion on extending the cease-fire. Sadr has formed five committees from the parliament bloc, the media, political elements, religious leaders, and provincial offices to deal with the question of extending the cease-fire.
The parliamentary committee has recommended the cease-fire not be extended because of Iraqi operations against the Mahdi Army in Diwaniyah, according to Sadr’s spokesman. “The parliament committee said they don’t want the ceasefire to remain,” said Salah al Ubaidi. “They want it lifted because of oppressive acts by security forces in Diwaniyah.”
Sadr will decide whether to extend the cease-fire or cancel it in late February. “Sadr would issue a statement around Feb 23 if he had agreed to extend the ceasefire,” Reuters reported. “Silence would mean it was over.”
While the common narrative is that the ending of the cease-fire would have negative implications for the newfound security gain in Iraq since the surge began in January 2007, Sadr and his Mahdi Army will pay a price for reinitiating hostilities. Sadr will essentially be admitting both his and his Mahdi Army’s role in the violence in 2006 and most of 2007 to the Iraqi people. He will also be laying his cards on the table, forcing his followers to choose between the Iraqi government and the Mahdi Army.
The political and security dynamics have changed since last summer. Sadr’s bloc no longer has representation in the Malaki-led coalition government, making military actions against his forces more politically palpable. The extent of the infiltration of Mahdi fighters into the police and Army is unknown, and the government has worked to purge them of these elements.
The Mahdi Army itself has been fractured, with some elements backing the government. The Shia community has increasingly grown to disdain the criminal and violent activities of the Mahdi Army. Sadr would also be forced to direct the ending of the cease-fire from Iran, where he is taking religious guidance from the Khomeinist branch of Shia clerics.
While the ending of the cease-fire would no doubt come at a disadvantageous time for the US – General David Petraeus is scheduled to brief Congress on the situation in Iraq in April – it may also allow for resolution of Mahdi Army problem. With US forces at its maximum numbers due to the surge and the growth of the Iraqi security forces over the past year, there is additional capacity to take on the Mahdi Army. The August 2007 cease-fire was called partially in recognition of this fact.