The battle between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi and US forces intensified over the weekend. As the Iraqi Army took control of a Mahdi Army stronghold in Basrah, Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, threatened to end the self-imposed cease-fire. Iraqi security forces have also stepped up efforts against the Mahdi Army in the center-south region of Iraq, and captured more than 40 of the Iranian-backed Special Groups, a Mahdi Army splinter group.
Sadr threatened to end the cease-fire after Iraqi troops took over the Mahdi Army-dominated neighborhood of Hayaniyah in Basrah and ejected the Sadrist political party from government-owned offices in the city. He openly said he was prepared to revolt against the government.
“Do you want a third uprising?” Sadr said, referring to the two Mahdi Army uprisings in Baghdad, Najaf, and the South in April and August 2006. “So I direct my last warning and speech to the Iraqi government to refrain and to take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people. If the government does not refrain and leash the militias that have penetrated it, we will announce an open war until liberation.”
The Iraqi government brushed off Sadr’s comments and continued to maintain that the Mahdi Army must disarm while saying the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist movement was not a target. “The state can not withstand the existence of two armies,” government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said. Dabbagh also noted the government is not negotiating with the Sadrist movement. “We don’t have direct negotiations or contacts with the Sadr’s movement because we have nothing to negotiate with them but also we don’t have problems with the political factions,” he said.
The US military and government responded forcefully to Sadr’s threat to end the ceasefire. “If Sadr and Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) become very aggressive, we’ve got enough combat power to take the fight to the enemy,” Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of US forces in Karbala, Najaf, Babil, Wasit, and southern Baghdad provinces told the US media.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza, who is currently visiting Iraq, taunted Sadr by implying he was hiding in Iran while ordering his fighters to oppose their government. “I know he’s sitting in Iran,” Rice said. “I guess its all-out war for anybody but him. I guess that’s the message; his followers can go to their deaths and he’s in Iran.”
The cease-fire is all but over
The Mahdi Army cease-fire is all but dead, as the Mahdi Army has openly resisted the Iraqi government’s attempts to assert control in Sadrist strongholds in Baghdad, Basrah, and the South. Sadr admitted his political movement issued orders to attack both US and Iraqi troops and has called for Iraqi soldiers and police to desert their units.
Sadr’s forces have continued to attack Iraqi government forces despite a cease-fire. An incident on April 19 south of Nasariyah backfired on the Mahdi Army as 40 fighters were captured, including two leaders, after attempting to ambush Iraqi forces in Suq Ash Shuyukh. The Iraqi security forces responded by sending a joint force of soldiers, police, and special police to battle the Mahdi Army force.
The Mahdi Army forces “retreated to building that contained the local Sadr Trend office” after “facing a combination of armored vehicles and suppressive fire,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported in a press release. Iraqi forces cleared the building and discovered a large weapons cache that included “explosively formed penetrators, Katyusha rockets, rocket propelled grenade launchers and a large quantity of additional weapons and ammunition.” Iran has supplied explosively formed penetrators to the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups.
A local police chief said 39 Mahdi Army fighters were captured, while 22 people, including two policemen, were killed, while another 19 police were wounded during the fighting. Multinational Forces Iraq said 40 “criminals” were captured and 12 Iraqi soldiers were wounded.
US and Iraqi troops have been active in Baghdad and Sadr City as well. US soldiers killed 22 “criminals” and captured six during a series of engagements in Baghdad over the last 24 hours. On April 19, aerial weapons teams killed seven Mahdi Army fighters in Sadr City as they transported weapons and attacked US and Iraqi forces.
US troops killed 20 Mahdi Army fighters today during a series of engagements in the Adhamiyah, East Rashid, and Kadamiyah districts in Baghdad. Coalition special forces captured a “suspected Iranian-trained Special Groups commander” and three lieutenants and killed three others during a targeted raid in Kadamiyah. US soldiers killed 12 Mahdi Army fighters as they planted roadside bombs and attacked US forces in Adhamiyah and East Rashid. Another five Mahdi fighters were killed and two wounded by air weapons teams late in the afternoon on Sunday.
In Basrah, Iraqi troops conducted a cordon-and-search operation in the Al Kaziza region north of the city. Iraqi troops ” captured a number of wanted men” and seized heavy and medium weapons during the operation.
In Karbala, Iraqi troops also found a weapons factory with a large weapons cache containing “80 IEDs, 130 detonation devices and 60 kg of TNT.” Karbala police also captured an eight-man cell, including the cell leader. Police “confiscated their documents that include names of politicians and religious clergies’ representatives in Karbala, aiming at eliminating and assassinating them.”
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.