An Iraqi Army soldier from the 42nd Iraqi Army Brigade, 11th Iraqi Army Division provides security at Combat Patrol Base Comanche in the Sadr City district of Baghdad April 19. (US Air Force photo/Technical Sergeant Adrian Cadiz)
On the same day Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, seemingly backed down from threats to call for an uprising against the government, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki issued tough conditions that must be met for the government to end the attacks against the Mahdi Army.
Maliki said the government would halts its operations against the Mahdi Army if the militia turns in its weapons, turns over wanted members, provides the names of those behind recent violence, and agrees to “cease interference in the affairs of the state,” The Associated Press reported Friday. Sadr has refused to disarm and disband the Mahdi Army in the past.
Earlier on Friday, Sadr backtracked on a statement made last weekend where he threatened to conduct a third uprising. Sadr said he would strike at US and Coalition forces and not rise up against the Iraqi government. He then threatened the government if it did not eject “militias” from the security forces.
Iraqi Army clashes with Mahdi Army outside Sadr City
Fighting between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi and US security forces continued throughout Friday. US and Iraqi troops killed 14 Mahdi Army fighters earlier in the day. An additional five Mahdi Army fighters were killed in the Qahira neighborhood just outside of Sadr City.
Mahdi Army fighters fired on an Iraqi Army checkpoint after soldiers stopped their car. The Iraqi soldiers returned fire and ignited “a quantity of ammunitions, rockets, and guns,” Voices of Iraq reported. The car exploded, killing all five Mahdi fighters. Three Iraqi soldiers were wounded.
The Qahira neighborhood (number 18 on the map) sits to the southwest of Sadr City (numbers 26-28). Iraqi and US troops currently control the Ishbilya and Habbibiyah neighborhoods (numbers 26 and 27 on the map) and have walled off these areas to restrict the movement of weapons and supplies. The Mahdi Army has used these neighborhoods to launch mortar and rocket attacks against the International Zone (made up of parts of numbers 50-52). The Mahdi Army has launched attacks against US and Iraqi forces in an attempt to dislodge them from the neighborhoods.
Clearing continues in Basrah, Sadrists barred from entering city
As the Mahdi Army is targeted in Baghdad, the Iraqi Army is advancing through Basrah as part of Operation Knights’ Assault, which was launched a month ago on March 25. Iraqi soldiers have begun to clear the Al Huteen neighborhood.
Al Huteen “had been considered a stronghold for criminal elements of the [Mahdi Army],” Multinational Forces Iraq reported. “But, when the soldiers of QRF 1 moved into the city, the local citizens actively welcomed and cooperated with them. The searches themselves turned up several weapons caches including mortar rounds, rocket propelled grenades and launchers, and improvised explosive devices as well as several detainees suspected of criminal activity.”
The current clearing operation is lead by the Quick Reaction Force 1 of the 1st Iraqi Army. Quick Reaction Force 1 is the new designation for the 1st Iraqi Army Division, the most experienced unit in the Iraqi military.
The Al Huteen neighborhood is the latest Mahdi Army stronghold tackled by the Iraqi security forces in Basrah. Iraqi troops cleared the Hayaniyah neighborhood last weekend, and the Taymiyyah and Qiblah neighborhoods have been cleared over the past several weeks.
The Iraqi government and military have been emboldened by the success in clearing Mahdi Army strongholds in Basrah. On Friday, the military turned away a delegation from the Sadrist movement as they attempted to enter the city. “The delegation’s mission was to evaluate the circumstances in Basra, try to assist and activate the items mentioned in Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s release, stop the bloodshed and to assess the situation on the ground,” a member of the Sadrist movement told Voices of Iraq.
Last weekend the military ejected the Sadrist movement from its political offices in central Basrah. Security forces also destroyed a prayer yard used by the Mahdi Army in the Al Hakimiya neighborhood. The political office and prayer yard were built on government-owned properties. Images of Sadr are being torn down from public places.
The Mahdi Army has been relatively quiet in Basrah of late, but it is still attempting to exert itself. An attack on a wedding in central Basrah killed one child and wounded 25 civilians, while a music shop was bombed in a separate incident. Music and CD shops, liquor stores, and schools have reopened since Sadr’s religious police have been driven from the streets the past several weeks.
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 top Shiite cleric in Iraq, said the Mahdi Army was not above the law and should be disarmed.