Iraqi Army soldiers help conduct a dismounted patrol in the Sadr City District of Baghdad, Iraq, April 7, 2008. US Air Force photo by Technical Sergeant Adrian Cadiz.
Iraqi and Coalition forces are pressing the fight against the Mahdi Army in northeastern Baghdad and the southern port city of Basrah. Iraqi troops have cleared two Mahdi Army strongholds in Basrah and reportedly have surrounded three others as they prepare to press the operation. In Baghdad, the Iraqi Army and US forces continue to clash with the Mahdi Army while forces have moved into southwestern Sadr City and set up a “demonstration area” to distribute aid and provide local security.
The battle for Sadr City
The Iraqi government signaled that it was willing to take on the Mahdi Army inside its Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City and the outlying neighborhoods since Muqtada al Sadr ordered his militia to cease fighting six days after the Basrah operation began in March. Last weekend, Ali al Dabbagh, the spokesman for the government of Iraq, said Iraqi and US forces would “continue [operations] until we secure Sadr City.” Multinational Forces Iraq said it was backing the Iraqi government and military in its efforts.
The operation involves more than military operations, as the Iraqi government seeks to wrest control of the Mahdi Army’s grip on public services inside Sadr City. “The aim now is to launch an ambitious plan of 30-day, 60-day, and 90-day public works and services-improvement projects designed to convince the local population that the Iraqi government — and not Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia — is best able to improve the quality of life in an impoverished expanse of pot-holed streets, open sewers, and joblessness,” the Christian Science Monitor reported. “US and Iraqi military are now set up and living among the Sadr City residents in the ‘demonstration’ area of the southern third of the sector.”
Clashes in Sadr City continue as the Mahdi Army attempts to disrupt the government’s attempts to gain a foothold in the neighborhood. US troops killed five “criminals” in a series of engagements starting on the evening of April 14 up through this afternoon. Two “criminals threw grenades at an M1A2 main battle tank followed by an additional two criminals engaging the armored patrol with small arms fire,” Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, the Public Affairs Officer for Multinational Division Baghdad told The Long War Journal. “The patrol of Abrams Tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles fired 25mm and 1 x 120mm HEAT round and killed all four.”
Two more clashes took place in the early morning and afternoon of April 15. “Today, at approximately 3 a.m. an air weapons team reported five heavily armed criminals with 2 PKCs (machineguns) and multiple AK-47s,” Stover said. “The group splits and the (air weapons team) engages and kills two criminals with a Hellfire missile. Finally, at 2 p.m. an (air weapons team) engaged a minivan transporting a mortar tube after radar acquisition identified the point of origin of a mortar attack. Both the minivan and the mortar tube were destroyed and the criminal killed.”
A US solider was also killed in a roadside bomb attack in northeastern Baghdad on April 14. An Iraqi soldier was also killed and a school damaged in a rocket attack in eastern Baghdad. The day prior, US troops killed six more “criminals” after they attacked a US tank patrol. An air weapons team crew killed one Mahdi Army fighter in an open field while an Abrams tank crew killed another five as they attacked the US troops from a rooftop.
Operation Knights’ Assault moves forward in Basrah
As Iraqi and US troops work to gain control of Sadr City from the Mahdi Army and allied Iranian-backed Shia militias, Operation Knights’ Assault continues in the southern port city of Basrah. Knights’ Assault has “entered a new phase of operations,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported in a press release. Iraqi troops, backed by US and British advisers and Coalition air and logistical support, have “started the process of clearing strongholds previously dominated by criminal militias.” Iraqi and Coalition spokesmen continue to refer to the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed militias as “criminals.”
Iraqi troops have cleared the Qiblah in the southwestern portion of the city and the Taymiyyah neighborhood in central Basrah, while the Mahdi Army strongholds of Hayaniyah, Khamsamile, and Garma in the northwest “are now encircled by Iraqi troops who are carrying out door-to-door searches,” according to AFP.
Iraqi troops took control of the ports of Khour al Zubair and Umm Qasr in Basrah province on April 1, and the ports are now open for business. Iraqi Marines are now securing the ports, freeing the Iraqi Army to conduct operations elsewhere in Basrah province.
Elements of the Mahdi Army in Basrah have vowed keep their weapons as the Iraqi security forces move into the Mahdi-controlled neighborhoods. The 17/3 movement, a Mahdi Army faction “loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr” said it would not abide by the government’s order to surrender its weapons. “The movement would not surrender heavy arms to security forces,” Sheikh Abdullah al Ashmani, the leader of the 17/3 movement told Voices of Iraq. The weapons would be used “only against the occupier” and “not against Iraqi forces,” Ashmani said.
Clashes between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi and Coalition forces are ongoing in Basrah. Coalition air forces killed four Shia mortar men and wounded another in an attack west of Basrah on April 15. An Iraqi intelligence officer was killed in an ambush by “unidentified gunmen” in central Basrah on April 14. Iraqi soldiers also captured one kidnapper while freeing a British journalist who was kidnapped in Basrah more than two months ago. The Iraqi troops were fired on by the kidnappers as they were clearing the neighborhood.
Iraqi and Coalition forces have inflicted serious casualties on the Mahdi Army since launching Operation Knights’ Assault. Four hundred Mahdi Army fighters have been killed since the March 25, while Iraqi soldiers have lost 15 killed in fighting and have had another 400 wounded. More than 400 Mahdi Army fighters were captured and 1,000 wounded in the clashes in Basrah alone.
Background on the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government
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. Sadr later admitted he ordered his followers within the Army and police to abandon their posts and join the fighting against the government.
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. On April 13, the cabinet approved legislation that prevents political parties with militias from contesting provincial elections this year. The bill will now be sent to parliament for approval. 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.