Iraqi Army applicants wait outside the army recruitment center in Basrah, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad on April 1, 2008. About 1,000 men from the southern cities of Basrah, Amarah, and Nasiriyah trooped to the recruiting center in Basrah to apply to be government soldiers. Reuters photograph.
Three days after Muqtada al Sadr ordered the Mahdi Army to withdraw from the fighting in Baghdad and the Shia South, the fighting has dropped dramatically. The Iraqi government has denied that it has agreed to Sadr’s terms. But the government has softened its rhetoric against Mahdi Army, instead shifting its focus on the “criminal elements” just as the US military has done over the past year. Meanwhile, the Iraqi security forces are continuing operations in Basrah.
The Iraqi military has continued to target Mahdi Army elements in Basrah and in Baghdad and southern Iraq, but the government is now referring to them as “criminal elements” and maintains anyone breaking the law will be targeted. “The guarantees for the Sadr Trend and for all Iraqis say that the Iraqi government has law and everyone should abide by the law,” said Dr. Ali al Dabbagh, the spokesman for the Iraqi government in a press briefing on March 31. The Iraqi government “will not target a certain trend, but will target only the criminals. And this is what the Iraqi government is doing and what it’s committed to do.”
The Iraqi government has now essentially co-opted the same strategy of dealing with the Mahdi Army as the US military instituted in late 2006. The strategy works to divide the Mahdi Army into legitimate actors and criminal groups. This strategy allows for the government to target the illegal elements of the Mahdi Army in raids under the mantle of the law. US and Iraqi security forces have conducted numerous operations against the Special Groups using this method. This has caused schisms inside the Mahdi Army, with some elements breaking off to receive support from Iran and others defying Sadr’s orders to lay down their weapons.
While the intensity of operations against the Mahdi Army in Basrah and the South have decreased since Sadr called for his unilateral cease-fire, Iraqi security forces continue to conduct operations. Today the Iraqi Army marched through the Mahdi Army-infested Hayaniyah district in central Basrah. On April 1, the Hillah Special Weapons and Tactics unit captured 20 “smugglers” in Basrah. On March 31, Iraqi Special Operation Forces killed 14 “criminals” during a raid against Mahdi Army forces occupying a school in Basrah.
The Iraqi security forces will continue to clear Basrah, according to the Army. During Sunday’s press briefing, Major General Abdul Aziz said several districts of Basrah were cleared, and these operations would continue. “Our troops managed to clear certain areas in Basra, Najubya, Al Ma’qil, Al Ashshar Wazuber and Garmat Ali and other places as well,” said Aziz. “Starting from today, we will work on clearing the other places from the wanted individuals and criminals and those who are still carrying weapons.”
The Iraqi military and police are also kicking off a recruiting drive to beef up the size of the security forces in Basrah. “I also instructed to stop encroachments on state-owned lands and public property and back up the Iraqi police and army forces with 10,000 troops residents of Basra, who volunteered for national duty,” Maliki said. Over 1,000 Basrah men flocked to join the Army just one day after Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army to leave the streets.
The Iraqi Army has also moved troops into the ports of Khour al Zubair and Umm Qasr in Basrah province on April 1. The Iraqi troops replaced the facility protection services guards who are often accused of criminal activities.
Iraqi security forces also have had great success in security the cities in the South, with minimal US assistance. Hillah, Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniyah, Amarah, and Al Kut are secured, Aziz said. The Iraqi Army moved additional forces into Al Kut and Amarah and conducted clearing operations in these cities. There was no militia activity in Muthanna province during the six days of fighting in late March.