Sadr City barrier 'a magnet' for Mahdi Army attacks
This map, from The Washington Post, was created April 24. There is no estimate available on when the barrier will be completed.
The large majority of the direct attacks by the Mahdi Army against US and Iraqi forces in Sadr City are occurring on Qods Street, where a barrier is being erected to separate the Iraqi Army and US controlled sections in the south from the northern portion of the district, the US military told The Long War Journal. The Mahdi Army is attempting to stop the building of the barrier.
US Army engineers are in the process of installing tall concrete barriers along the length of Al Qods Street, a major route that runs approximately east to west in the southern portion of Sadr City. Al Qods Street divides the Ishbilyah and Habbibiyah neighborhoods, which are controlled by the US and Iraqi military, from the northern neighborhoods. US and Iraqi forces hope to restrict the movement of weapons and supplies into the southern neighborhoods, prevent the Mahdi Army from using these areas as launch sites for mortar and rocket attacks against the International Zone, establish the writ of the government, and provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqis living in these areas in order to wrest control from the Mahdi Army.
The Mahdi Army is trying desperately to stop the barrier from being built, and is focusing its attacks on US engineers and patrols as they work to complete it. The Mahdi Army has launched complex attacks and ambushes using small-arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and roadside bombs.
"[The barrier is] a magnet," said Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, the chief Public Affairs Officer for Multinational Division Baghdad in response to email questions on the recent fighting in Sadr City. "In that area, for the past three days we've seen some pretty heavy, prolonged engagements. Elsewhere, it's mostly IEDs [improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs], IDF [indirect fire, or rockets and mortars] and harassment fire."
These attacks have not stopped the barrier from being built, said Stover, who visited the construction sites on Qods Street on May 1. "As the engineers were emplacing the barriers an M1A1 Abrams fired a main gun round at militants across the street," Stover said. "We fired 5 Hellfire missiles and dropped two JDAMs from fixed wing aircraft. It got a bit hot today, but our Soldiers continued emplacing the barriers." Two Mahdi Army fighters were confirmed killed during four engagements along Al Qods Street on May 1. More Mahdi fighters probably were killed, according to the press release, but a full count was not available. Three US soldiers were wounded in the fighting.
One of the largest battles in Sadr City occurred along Al Qods street on April 28. The Mahdi Army took advantage of the lack of US air cover due to a sand storm to launch an ambush against US forces as they patrolled the road while other soldiers were building the barrier. Mahdi Army forces launched the complex attack from the region north of Al Qods Street. The US soldiers counterattacked and killed 28 Mahdi Army fighters while taking six wounded.
The next day, The Associated Press ran an article on the engagement titled "Militiamen ambush drives back US patrol in Sadr City." But Stover said the ambush failed to force the US soldiers to withdraw. "The barrier emplacement never stopped," Stover told The Long War Journal.
Background on the recent fighting in with the Mahdi Army
Mahdi Army forces openly took up arms against the government 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.
In Baghdad alone, US and Iraqi forces killed 173 Mahdi Army fighters during the six days of fighting from March 25 up until Sadr declared a cease-fire. The fighting has not abated in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army-dominated neighborhoods in northern and eastern Baghdad. A total of 465 Mahdi Army fighters have been confirmed killed in and around Sadr City since March 25.
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. Sadr has refused to disband the Mahdi Army.
On April 20, Sadr threatened to conduct a third uprising, but later backed down from his threat, claiming it was directed only at US forces. The Maliki government has stood firm and said operations would continue until the Mahdi Army and other militias disarm and disband. The Iraqi government has sent a delegation to Iran to ask the Iranian government to halt its support for attacks inside Iraq and to stop arming and training Shia terror groups.