Fighting erupts in Sadr City after Sadr aide killed


Clashes between the Mahdi Army and US and Iraqi forces broke out in Sadr City in Baghdad late Friday after a senior aide to Muqtada al Sadr was murdered in the city of Najaf. US and Iraqi forces confirmed killing 13 Mahdi Army fighters in eastern Baghdad after a series of complex attacks.

The latest bout of fighting in the Mahdi Army strongholds in eastern Baghdad began after Riyad al Nouri was murdered by gunmen outside his home in Najaf. Nouri was in charge of Sadr's office in Najaf and was also Sadr's brother-in-law. Sadr immediately accused "the hands of the occupiers and their tails," referring to the Iraqi government, of conducting the attack. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki immediately condemned the killing.

Iraqi security forces immediately clamped a curfew on the cities of Najaf and Hillah in an attempt to prevent retaliatory strikes from the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi Army suffered a setback during the six days of fighting at the end of March, and its capacity was degraded in the south-central cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Hillah. But Sadr still maintains influence in the region.

A series of clashes broke out in Sadr City in the late evening after Mahdi Army forces conducted several complex attacks against joint US and Iraqi patrols. The Mahdi Army used roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper and small-arms fire from housing complexes in the city. One of the US and Iraqi convoys was transporting material to be used in the construction of a checkpoint that would be manned by the Iraqi Army.

Thirteen Mahdi Army fighters were confirmed killed in three separate engagements and "multiple others" are believed to have been killed. US forces used M1A2 Abrams tanks and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to strike at Mahdi Army positions.

The Iraqi government had planned on lifting the curfew in Sadr City on April 12, but the recent fighting and the murder of Sadr's brother-in-law has put the plan on hold.

Mahdi Army forces rose up after the Iraqi government started the assault on Basrah on March 25 to clear the city of the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed Shia militias. Sadr called for his forces to leave the streets on March 30 just as Iraqi Army and police reinforcements began to arrive in Basrah.

US and Iraqi forces killed 173 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad alone during the six days of fighting from March 25-30. The fighting has not abated in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army dominated neighborhoods in northern and eastern Baghdad.

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. 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.



Advertisement:


READER COMMENTS: "Fighting erupts in Sadr City after Sadr aide killed"

Posted by Marlin at April 12, 2008 9:38 AM ET:

al-Maliki is continuing follow-up operations in Basra.

In the southern port of Basra, Iraq's second largest city, the Iraqi army said it had started carrying out "the second phase of operations" by conducting a sweep of the city's Qibla district, looking for illegal weapons, ammunition and wanted criminals.

Associated Press: 13 Killed in Sadr City Clashes

Posted by Marlin at April 12, 2008 9:45 AM ET:

The Mahdi Army is not winning every heart and mind in Sadr City.

The continuous fighting has turned daily life for many of the slum's residents into a living hell.

"Our suffering starts at night when the Mehdi Army fighters sneak around the narrow streets and we fear air strikes could happen any minute," said Laith Majeed, 22, a university student.

"The innocent people are always the victims. We cannot sleep at night and we're losing patience. These are the worst days I have lived and I don't think life will ever get back to normal."

Reuters: Baghdad slum residents endure street battle hell

Posted by Marlin at April 12, 2008 10:31 AM ET:

Grim (recently returned from Iraq as a civilian advisor) has a very interesting post up on the problems facing Iraq. I had never thought of the recent battles against the Mahdi Army in exactly this paradigm before.

The GoI and the JAM are both disaggregating their bad elements. Mickey Kaus deserves credit for noticing, at least as far as the GoI goes:

Whether it was an incremental success or a humiliating fizzle, hasn't the Maliki government's assault on Sadr-linked Shiite militias operated, de facto, as a highly efficient purge of the Iraqi army? According to Juan Cole, those who heeded calls for defection or who otherwise refused to fight have been fired. ... P.S.: Meanwhile, some 10,000 militia members who did fight on the government's side have reportedly been inducted into the security forces.

What people have not noticed is that JAM is doing essentially the same thing. For quite some time Sadr has been purging JAM of elements that do not obey him. Sadr has said that he will disown members who violate the ceasefire, excepting in self-defense. His proposed truce calls for patience from his members, and comes "after receiving assurances" that his membership will not be targetted if he has them stand down.

Blackfive: Thoughts on Iraq

Posted by Neo at April 12, 2008 10:32 AM ET:

A couple other things should be thrown into the mix. First, there is an aggressive ongoing campaign to suppress rocket and mortar fire coming out of the South West corner of Sadr City nearest to downtown Baghdad and the green zone. These mortar attacks have long been a both a dangerous nuisance and a successful propaganda tool for JAM. Second, you might want to emphasize that the checkpoints being established are part of a larger ongoing attempt to establish at lest a nominal government security presence throughout Sadr city. The establishment of new checkpoints can be expected to be incremental and will increase as resources and troops become available for the effort. I'm guessing that security measures within Sadr City will come in stages. I don't see where the IA could find troops for anything more aggressive than an incremental approach. I think they would also like to attempt to undercut the level of support that JAM has within Sadr City. If they can get significant portions of the resistance within Sadr City to just give up and go home, it would be far preferred over fighting it out with the entire neighborhood.

Quickly establishing a security presence in Basra and capitalizing on gains within that city will probably take up much of available resources in the short term. It's a considerable undertaking as Basra is the second largest city in Iraq.

I really don't understand how some people maintain the same level of gloom about the war effort as if there is no improvement and nothing new has happened. They look at metrics and see a slight rise in violence than say things are falling apart. Iraqi troops have within the last four months established security within Mosul the third largest city and are now quickly taking hold of Basra the second largest city. That doesn't seem to have any significance though. Now the latest fear seems to be that the Iraqi government risks stability by pressuring JAM and attempting to undercut its strength and support. It should be pointed out that we have been pressuring JAM for the last two years with exactly the opposite effect. During that time JAM has been losing ground not gaining.

Posted by Marlin at April 12, 2008 11:10 AM ET:

Sam Dagher makes the point that the recent Basra initiative also included a significant component about oil and smuggling.

For the government, which relies on oil revenues to fund most of its budget, the financial stakes are immense. While there are no accurate figures, an Iraqi parliamentary committee says that losses from oil smuggling run $5 billion a year.

"We have cleansed large swaths on both sides of Shatt al-Arab that were being used to smuggle oil products and other materials," says Mr. Shahristani, who spoke during an interview at the Oil Ministry in Baghdad on Monday, describing the government achievements in Basra so far.

[...]

Shahristani says the Basra assault, which was led by Iraqi forces and backed up by the US and British militaries, will allow better control of vital oil resources and facilities, curb smuggling, and help boost production to 3 million barrels per day (b.p.d.) by the end of the year, which would be the highest level in 20 years.

For rival Shiite groups - from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition to the members of Sadr's movement - the equation is simple. Whoever controls the oil speaks in the name of the Shiite south and has the leverage to map the country's future and work out deals with the two other competing groups: the Sunnis and the Kurds.

Christian Science Monitor: Basra strike against Shiite militias also about oil

Posted by Neo at April 12, 2008 11:12 AM ET:

I'm a little unsure where the Qibla District is within Basra since it is unmarked on either of the maps I am using. There is a suburban district in the far southwest of Basra that has it's streets off-set at a different angle as it would make the houses face Mecca. Perhaps this is the Qibla District. Maybe someone can enlighten me on this?

Posted by Neo at April 12, 2008 11:40 AM ET:

Marlin,
There does seem to be a direct effort to clamp down on illegal activities south and west of Basra related to oil and arms smuggling. If the Qibla district is where I think it is, on the southwest corner of Basra, taking over that district may be directly related to clamping down on oil smuggling. I believe that the primary oil line that goes out to Al Faw skirts past the southwest edge of this district passing within a few hundred yards of the neighborhood.

It is possible to follow the main oil pipeline back toward Basra from Al Faw using Google Earth. Start at the tank farm just north of Al Faw and follow the line. There is a ridge of dirt with a crude dirt road running along it and runoff ditches of either side. Every so often, you can see a place where the line has been compromised and oil has run into the runoff ditches. The line heads straight toward Basra and veers northwest as it passes the western edge of Basra. It connects to a large oil storage facility west of Basra.

Posted by Colin Campbell at April 12, 2008 12:59 PM ET:

Does anybody have any idea who killed Nouri? I don't see it as a US or Iraqi government operation.

Is there a power struggle going on within the JAM?

Posted by bubarooni at April 12, 2008 1:26 PM ET:

sadr has been sitting on a three legged stool:

1. oil smuggling to fund his ops
2. iranian weapons and support
3. the threat of '50,000' armed followers

i don't think that the iranian's are the paymaster for all his followers. would be a pretty expensive payroll so oil smuggling (cars and consumer electronics too from what i read somewhere) keeps bread on his followers tables.

i think it's fairly obvious that most of his material and logistical support are iranian.

i think it's also fairly obvious there were not 50,000 AK's on the street during the recent tussle with the GoI forces.

without money to keep his guys on the payroll he can't call them out to the streets. if he can't get them on the streets he's not a lot of use to the iranians.

the stool looks wobbly at the moment. he's going to have to do something in the near term, either militarily or politically or risk being sidelined by developments.

Posted by bubarooni at April 12, 2008 1:42 PM ET:

ummm... btw... i intentionally left out the possible 4th leg i've heard some argue, religious. i think it's a charade and i believe most iraqis have known that since he had that rival guy whacked back in 2003(?). his authority in the spiritual realm is something oft repeated by his own people and dutifully parroted by msm. it's tenuous at best and totally dependent upon his father's name AND the three real yardsticks of his strength mentioned above. i can't remember that guys name for anything though...

just my own musings based on what i read though.

Posted by Neo at April 12, 2008 3:37 PM ET:

bubarooni said:

"i intentionally left out the possible 4th leg i've heard some argue, religious. i think it's a charade and i believe most Iraqis have known that since he had that rival guy whacked back in 2003"

Don't underestimate the religious part of the equation. It's about more than the credibility of one man (Sadr). It's about the inheritor of an important religious line going back to the prophet. This carries great weight in a traditionalist society. Religion is also the last bit of identity many poor Shiites have that no one dare take away from them. We are also at a time of religious revival for both Shiite and Sunni populations throughout the Middle-East.

The motives and methods of these religious movements may be questionable, but their existence as a strong force in Middle Eastern politics is without doubt. Say what you will about the specifics and consequences, but discounting religion as a factor in this is a big mistake.

Posted by sherlock at April 12, 2008 4:10 PM ET:

Don't know whether the transition of the IA from AK's to M-16's has even started, but I don't think the genius behind the move is widely enough appreciated.

The symbolism aside, when only the bad guys carry AK-47's, it will be a lot easier to tell the bad guys from the good guys won't it? Beyond that, anybody that picks up an M-16 is making a big statement, a you-bet-your-life statement, and when you can't blend into the background and run away anymore, I'm thinking you fight alongside your allies a little harder.

Posted by SoldiersDad at April 12, 2008 4:16 PM ET:

Neo,

"Don't underestimate the religious part of the equation."

http://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrArticle=76100&NrIssue=2&NrSection=1

"In Basra the signs of the feared militia are slowly receding. For the first time in years alcohol vendors are selling beer close to army checkpoints"

Don't overestimate the religious angle either.

Average Omar likes his beer and cigarettes just as much as Average Joe.

Posted by DJ Elliott at April 12, 2008 5:37 PM ET:

sherlock

1st, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Divisions plus ISOF and the Presidential Brigade have US M4/M16s.

Those are the ones confirmed. Last month's FMS notice included another buy of 100,000 M16s and 100,000 M4s more...

However, MoI's police are sticking with AKs...

Posted by Terry Gain at April 12, 2008 6:44 PM ET:

bubarooni

The cleric whom Al Sadr's men killed was the pro liberation Majid al -Khoie.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18771

Posted by Joseph Sixpack at April 12, 2008 8:20 PM ET:

The first thing that popped into my mind when Sadr's thug got whacked in Najaf was that ISCI is protecting its turf. They want their cut of the shrine money, which means guarding it against JAM's greasy mitts.

Posted by Marlin at April 13, 2008 12:14 AM ET:

Neo -

I believe this news article says Qibla is 8km west of downtown Basra.

Earlier on Saturday, a security source told VOI that security forces blocked all the roads that lead to the areas of al-Qibla (8 km western Basra), al-Tememiya (city center), al-Hussein neighborhood (8 km western Basra), and al-Asdeqa'a neighborhood (9 km western Basra).

Aswat al-Iraq: 14 wanted arrested, weapons and ammunitions seized in Basra

Posted by bubarooni at April 13, 2008 8:15 AM ET:

Neo,

I agree that the Shia's as a group value their individual identification as Shia. It's been pretty well ingrained on them by the persecution they faced a group during Saddam's rule. I don't think Sadr himself has a deep seated religious base among the Shia though.

The Iranian's sent him over to whack al-Khoie (thanks Terry Gain!) to gain influence in Iraq. It was a pretty blatant power grab, the senior cleric being murdered (at the mosque even!) by the junior cleric, and the Shia as a people know that. OK, it may have been Saddamists, but it's always been my feeling that the Iranians had him whacked so their man, Sadr, wouldn't have to contend with al_Khoei's greater authority.

His power base has always been guns and money. His father's name provides a cheap veneer of religious authority. He is a strongman, not a religious man.

Posted by Therapist1 at April 14, 2008 2:13 PM ET:

Sounded like an internal hit.

Posted by bubarooni at April 14, 2008 2:28 PM ET:

perhaps. al-Nuri (Sadr's bro-in-law) got whacked a few days ago and i'd wager that was a revenge hit by al-Khoei's people.

i still think whacking al-Khoei was to advance Sadr which in turn advanced the Iranian's influence.

i'm overusing the term 'whack'. i gotta quit watching the Sopranos so much!

Posted by DWMF at April 14, 2008 2:31 PM ET:

Therapist1: Sounded like an internal hit.

I think so too. I think it's eye-for-an-eye for the murder of Majid al-Khoie. Maybe Sadr threw him to the wolves. All his subsequent blather is pure bluster to cover it up.

Posted by DWMF at April 14, 2008 2:33 PM ET:

Hey bubarooni man, are you telepathic? We wrote the same thought at the same time!

/sheesh.

Posted by bubarooni at April 14, 2008 5:43 PM ET:

i'm channeling you!