US military killed Mahdi Army commander Arkan Hasnawi in May 3 strike


Arkan Hasnawi. Click the image to view the most wanted Mahdi Army leaders in Baghdad.

The US military killed a senior member of the Mahdi Army, according US and Mahdi Army sources. Arkan Hasnawi, a senior lieutenant of the Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, was killed in a guided rocket strike in Sadr City on May 3. The news of Hasnawi's death comes as details emerge on the senior leadership of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad and the blurring of the lines between Sadr's militia and the Special Groups.

Hasnawi was among several senior Mahdi Army leaders killed or wounded in the GLMRS strike on a Mahdi Army command and control center that was placed next to the Sadr Hospital inside Sadr City, according to a report in The Washington Post. The command and control center, called "Tahseen's trailer" by US troops after Tahseen al Freiji, the senior Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, was used to direct Mahdi Army operations during the fighting from late March to mid May.

Arkan Hasnawi was a brigade commander in Sadr's Mahdi Army. He fought against US and Iraqi forces in Najaf in 2003 and 2004 and has been linked to multiple attacks on US and Iraq security forces in Baghdad. He runs a network of Mahdi Army fighters in the Sha'ab neighborhood, just east of Sadr City. The US military and Iraqi security forces fought pitched battles against the Hasnawi network in February, and killed a senior lieutenant of Hasnawi and scores of fighters in the organization.

Hasnawi was behind the kidnapping of Shia and Sunni tribal leaders in Diyala province in October 2007. His network was also behind the kidnapping of six Sons of Iraq from a checkpoint in Baghdad's Ur neighborhood on Feb. 7.

The Mahdi Army took significant casualties during the six weeks of fighting

Hasnawi was one of hundreds of Mahdi Army operatives killed in the fighting inside Sadr City from March 25 until the cease-fire with the Mahdi Army took place on May 10.

The US military estimates more than 700 Mahdi Army fighters were killed. "It is pretty safe to say that we have killed the equivalent of a U.S. battalion," Colonel John Hort, the commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division told The New York Times.

A Mahdi Army commander put the number closer to 1,000 killed over the past six weeks. "A thousand martyrs, what did they die for?" the commander said.

Number compiled by The Long War Journal showed 600 Mahdi Army fighters were killed in an around Sadr City since the fighting broke out on March 25.

Mahdi Army and Special Groups distinctions are essentially meaningless

The US military has long made distinctions between the Mahdi Army and what it calls Iranian-backed Special Groups. The Long War Journal has long maintained the military made these distinctions to divide the Mahdi Army and provide the nonextremist elements a way to end the violence. The Special Groups are essentially a subset of the Mahdi Army.

The "rogue element" and "Special Groups" narrative has provided Mahdi Army fighters and commanders a path to lay down their arms and join the political process. Multinational Forces Iraq has refused to categorize the entire Mahdi Army as "irreconcilable elements" to give Mahdi Army fighters this out.

Today's Washington Post shows the distinctions being made by Multinational Forces Iraq are meaningless. US commanders fighting in and around Sadr City are well aware that mainstream Mahdi Army fighters, who take orders directly from Sadr and the Sadrist movement leadership in Najaf.

The US military knows that Freiji commands anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 Mahdi Army fighters inside Baghdad and takes orders directly from the Sadrist movement in Najaf.

A Mahdi Army commander named Mahdi Khaddam Alawi al Zirjawi is a good example of someone who Multinational Forces Iraq would describe as a Special Groups leader. He has received training from Iran's Qods Force and Lebanese Hezbollah. Yet Zirjawi is considered a mainstream Mahdi Army commander. "Sadr has not repudiated him. Haji Mahdi fits in the organization," a US Army intelligence officer told The Washington Post. "I think [Sadrist] leaders are comfortable with him."

Another Mahdi Army commander named Baqir al Saidi also fits the profile of a Special Groups commander. Saidi is thought to be behind the kidnapping of five British contractors from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May 2007. The kidnapping has long been thought to be an Iranian-sponsored operation. Saidi has direct links to Iran and is thought to have fled there to avoid capture. The kidnappers of the British contractors have asked for the release of Qais Qazali, the leader of the Iranian-backed Qazali Network.

US and Iraqi troops may be targeting senior Mahdi leaders

Part of the agreement between the Iraqi government and the Sadrist movement is that Mahdi Army members would not be targeted unless a warrant is issued for their arrest. It is unclear if the Iraqi government has listed Freiji, Zirjawi, and the others as wanted men.

But the US and Iraqi military may be targeting them nonetheless. On May 19, the Gulf News reported British and US Special Operations Forces are accompanying the Iraqi Army into Sadr City to hunt for the five British hostages captured by Saidi. "Special personnel trained to free the hostages will accompany the Iraqi forces that are allowed to enter the Sadr City according to the agreement to look for and release the five British hostages," the Gulf News reported.

The entry of Iraqi troops into Sadr City has been peaceful thus far, but the hunt for senior Mahdi Army and Special Groups leaders may rekindle the violence that led to the decimation of the Mahdi Army during the past six weeks.

Operations against the Mahdi Army outside Sadr City have not abated, either. Today, US forces killed 11 Mahdi Army fighters during a series of engagements in New Baghdad, which borders Sadr City to the east. The Mahdi Army fighters were killed as part of "an ongoing operation," Multinational Forces Iraq reported. US forces also captured a Special Groups commander in the Rashid district in Baghdad.

A list of the Mahdi Army / Special Groups commanders in Sadr City (see slideshow for images)

Tahseen al Freiji: The senior Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City. Freiji was behind much of the 2006 and 2007 sectarian violence in Baghdad. Freiji commands a full brigade in Sadr City, equaling about 6,000 to 8,000 men, according to the US military. He directs mortar and rocket attacks, small-arms attacks, and IED and explosively formed penetrator attacks. He receives his orders from the Sadrist leadership in Najaf. He operated command centers next to hospitals in Sadr City.

Arkan Muhammad Ali al Hasnawi: Arkan Hasnawi was a brigade commander in Sadr's Mahdi Army. He fought against US and Iraqi security forces in Najaf in 2003 and 2004. Hasnawi has been linked to multiple attacks on US and Iraq security forces and was behind the kidnapping of Shia and Sunni tribal leaders in Diyala province in October 2007. His network was also behind the kidnapping of six Sons of Iraq from a checkpoint in Baghdad's Ur neighborhood on Feb. 7. Hasnawi was killed in a US GMLRS strike on one of Freiji's command centers next to a hospital in Sadr City on May 3.

Mahdi Khaddam Alawi al Zirjawi: Also known as Abu Ahmad and Abu Rayna, he is considered the top Iranian-linked Mahdi Army leader in Sadr City. Zirjawi has traveled to Iran to receive training from Iran's Qods Force and Lebanese Hezbollah. He is considered "public enemy number one in Sadr City" and still reports to Sadr.

Baqir al Saidi: The Mahdi Army commander thought to be behind the kidnapping of five British contractors from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in may 2007. Saidi is believed to have been in Iran in February and is thought to be considering going back to avoid the dragnet in Sadr City.

Jawad Kazim al Tulaybani: A rocket and mortar specialist behind an April attack on a US combat outpost in Baghdad that wounded 15 US soldiers.

Ismail Hafiz al Atawi: Also known as Abu Dure, Atawi has been behind the sectarian death squads that killed thousands of Sunnis in Baghdad. He has conducted kidnappings, murders, conducted EFP and IED attacks against US and Iraqi troops. He is also a weapons smuggler.

Muhammad Jassim al Daraji: Also known as Muhammed Cobra, Dajaji is behind EFP and IED attacks, smuggling, kidnappings, and murders. He is also a Special Groups financier.


READER COMMENTS: "US military killed Mahdi Army commander Arkan Hasnawi in May 3 strike"

Posted by Matthew at May 21, 2008 3:58 PM ET:

Good hunting, gentlemen.

Posted by David M at May 21, 2008 4:11 PM ET:

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/21/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

Posted by ST333 at May 21, 2008 4:52 PM ET:

Well done men. Great report on the situation as usual Bill

Posted by ECH at May 21, 2008 5:35 PM ET:

Good job to the military.

We need to kill Abu Deraa known as the Shia Zarqawi. He reportedly left Iran and is back in Iraq. His death will do more to convince the Sunnis that the current government will go after terrorists regardless of their religion then taking out anyone else other then Sadr himself which isn't likely to happen.

Posted by Neo at May 21, 2008 6:34 PM ET:

"Mahdi Army and Special Groups distinctions are essentially meaningless"

The worst kept secret in Iraq, if you could call it a secret rather than a convenient rhetorical distinction. It's easy to see why the US would utilize such a distinction. It allowed for an overall cease-fire while US and IA forces where preoccupied with defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq. At the same time it allowed the US to selectively designate "criminal elements" or "Special Groups" to target. These would often be the most aggressive violent elements or elements actively targeting troops with explosives. On a longer time scale it allowed a campaign to erode critical supporting elements tied to Iran.

It still is a bit perplexing why JAM felt the need to maintain the distinction. As Bill has repeatedly pointed out that Sadr had called the original "cease-fire" after a taking devastating casualties at Karbala in August 2007. This pattern of taking unsustainable casualties than calling a cease-fire has been repeated this spring in Basra and now again in Sadr City. This accounts for the "cease-fire" agreements, but what did JAM feel it could gain by maintaining the cease-fire and why maintain the distinction between criminal elements and the Mahdi Army? My suggestion that they may have needed to "clean house" doesn't hold very well, if there is no real distinction between criminal elements, Special Groups, and the Mahdi Army. In fact the whole organization seems to be built upon preexisting criminal groups. I have pointed out before that the Mahdi army seemed more a conglomeration of neighborhood gangs each with their own local leadership. The organization never seemed to coalesce into a unified fighting organization. Perhaps the leadership felt real frustration with the level of disorganization and wished to use the cease-fire as an opportunity to reorganize in the Fall of 2007. That never seems to successfully come about. Constant disruption by US forces prevented any attempts to rebuild or reorganize the Mahdi Army.

Another question I have regards Mahdi Army recruitment. These militia groups called upon neighborhood recruits to fill out their organizations. Were they already having problems getting people to show up and fight even as early as the summer of 2007? There was a huge upwelling of support after the Shrine bombing in the spring of 2006. This upwelling of support allowed the Mahdi army enough fighters to encroach on Sunni neighborhoods throughout Baghdad. By the summer of 2007 though the shrine bombing was more than a year in the past and Al Qaeda had been pushed to the outskirts of Baghdad. With the threat posed by Al Qaeda receding there was less direct incentive for neighborhood men to fight for the Mahdi Army. Many may have been fearful of voicing their objections to the group but may have been increasingly reluctant to show up and put their lives on the line. The Mahdi army had benefitted from its very first cease fire back in 2004. They survived that beating to become one of the dominant powers in Iraq. If they hoped for a repeat they were in for a big disappointment. By 2007 they had given themselves a bad reputation. They were never again able to recover their numbers. Instead of regrouping and rebuilding the opposite started to happen. They have continuously lost ground since.

I think this might come closer to the mark than my last comment on this subject. I think the mystery of what they hoped to achieve with the cease-fire lies in their recovery after the 2004 engagement. I think they hoped for a repeat. I also think many who do professional appraisals had similar expectations. Thus the disconnect with how things have developed on the ground.

Posted by rmwarnick at May 21, 2008 6:42 PM ET:

For months I've read the term "Special Groups" as uncritically adopted by the news media. Yet the "Special Groups" appear to be an invention of MNF-I, and the term is never used by the Mahdi Army.

The Long War Journal deserves credit for pointing out this artificial distinction as basically U.S. propaganda.

Posted by rmwarnick at May 21, 2008 6:52 PM ET:

Please re-check the date of the MLRS barrage that targeted the Mahdi Army command center-- I think it was May 3, not March 3.

Posted by Bill Roggio at May 21, 2008 6:54 PM ET:

Fixed, thanks.

RE: Neo's comments.

I basically agree, but the cease-fire of late are just an attempt to hang on.

Posted by Neo at May 21, 2008 7:58 PM ET:

"cease-fire of late are just an attempt to hang on."

Agree, although the Iranians seem willing to fight the Americans to the last Iraqi.

Mahdi Army=Special Groups=Criminals=Tools of Iran

Posted by KaneKaizer at May 21, 2008 8:06 PM ET:

Thousand martyrs huh? Guess the Mahdi supporters can't claim the US is inflating the body count since their own is even higher than ours.

Posted by TC at May 21, 2008 8:10 PM ET:

"The Long War Journal deserves credit for pointing out this artificial distinction as basically U.S. propaganda."

Propaganda that gave the Shi'ite Iraqi leaders the opportunity to target their co-religionists without risking a massive backlash from the supporters of al Sadr.

Seems to have worked.

Posted by Neo at May 21, 2008 8:36 PM ET:


"this artificial distinction as basically U.S. propaganda."

You used the right word "distinction" because it is only the distinction that is a fiction. The information about these groups and reasons for attacking them have been pretty much on the level. It's this distinct separation between "Criminals", "Special Groups", and "Mahdi Army" that are non-existent.

I don't think this arises because of propaganda purposes though. It has more to do with the fact that none of parties really intended to completely honor the Sadr's cease-fire agreement. The Mahdi Army still wanted to continue to bomb American convoys, assassinate SIIC political and religious figures, and undermine the Iraqi government. They didn't want to directly confront American or Iraqi troops or invite a siege upon their neighborhoods. The Iraqi government wanted JAM off of its back and wanted the assassinations and intimidation stopped. It did not however want an all out battle while the Iraqi Army was still too weak. The US wanted to attack the bombing cells and Iranian support within the organization. The US did not want an all out conflict with JAM either, because we didn't have the available troops while we were busy dealing with AQI in the North. Everyone wanted AQI dealt with first because they were indiscriminately bombing and killing everyone (Except maybe Syria and Iran who wanted everyone killing everyone).

It suited each party keep the cease-fire going at least in name. Each side created its own set rationalizations to match its intentions. Think of it less as a propaganda ploy than a strange Middle Eastern dance set to the tune of accompanying gunfire.

Note: That explanation may sound a little more slick than reality. There may have been a good deal of uncertainty along the way as to the real composition of, and allegiances within the Mahdi Army. I'm sure there have been many internal debates along the way about whether any of these distinctions had any real meaning.

OK guy's, I need to shut up now.

Posted by Mike at May 22, 2008 9:54 AM ET:

"A Mahdi Army commander put the number closer to 1,000 killed over the past six weeks. "A thousand martyrs, what did they die for?" the commander said."

1000 martyrs? By my count that would require 72,000 vigins. All kidding aside, this is good work once again by our people.

Posted by Mark Pyruz at May 22, 2008 6:50 PM ET:

Good slideshow, Bill. Do you have one for Iranians wanted in Iraq?

Posted by Matthew (in Aus) at May 22, 2008 7:53 PM ET:

Great reporting as usual Bill. Couple of questions

1) It's been reported by MNF that IA soldiers have captured Katuysha rockets and 122 mm rockets in Sadr City. What happens to the armaments seized by the ISF? What is MNF/GoI doing to make sure that ISF doesn't simply "give" the weapons back to the JAM?

2) What is the composition of the Iraqi 1st and 9th divisions as far as sectarian loyalties go? Pepe Escobar seems to speculate that these divisions are mostly made up of Badr brigades militia, but I was under the understanding that the 1st and 9th were the most experienced units in the IA and since the 1st is based in Anbar, I would think that it would be a mixed unit of Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Posted by DJ Elliott at May 22, 2008 8:18 PM ET:

Matthew (in Aus):

Captured munitions are regularly blown up in controlled detonations.

Both 1st and 9th are mixed divisions. 1st is a bit skewed towards Anbaris and 9th has a significant number from north Baghdad/south Salahadin sunnis.

This is a function of the first two years enlisted is with the Division of choise and after that is needs of the army. Most pick a division in home areas.
- 1st Div is eastern Anbar based.
- 9th Div is Taji based (right at the point where Anbar, Salahadin, Diyala, and Baghdad Provinces meet.

The claim of Badr group inflitration is normally leveled at 8th Division which covers the Mid-Euphraties Sector (Karbala, Babil, Najaf, Qadisayah, and Wassit). But, such claims are always made...