The Mahdi Army continues to flaunt its power. It’s decision time for Maliki.
Iranian proxy Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has yet again fought government forces in pitched street battles. The scene of the latest fighting is the city of Baquba, where Mahdi fighters and policemen engaged in fighting that killed 12 police and 18 Mahdi militiamen, with over 40 wounded. “The gunmen fighting police… were believed to be members of the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to hard-line anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said Ghassan al-Bawi, police chief of surrounding Diyala province,” reports Fox News. The fighting in Baqubah tollows last week’s violence in the nearby city of Balad, where Iraqi and U.S. Army units drove off Mahdi Army fighters that were battling Sunni insurgents during a 4-day period of sectarian violence that killed over 90.
According to an American intelligence source, the Mahdi Army has spread its presence across 9 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces have been countering Sadr’s moves with a series of raids striking at his most deadly and competent lieutenants, such as the raid yesterday in Sadr city against Abu Dura.
Sadr can no longer claim these are the acts of mere ‘rogue elements’ of his Mahdi Army. The clashes between Mahdi Army units and Iraqi and U.S. forces are occurring on a near-daily basis, and the sectarian violence is largely driven by Mahdi fighters. Ralph Peters argues it is time for the U.S. to kill Sadr. However, this would give Sadr the status of martyr to the ‘occupiers’ and could create unnecessary violence. We argue this is a task best left to the Iraqis. Ideally, a ‘rogue element’ of the Mahdi Army would kill him (or so it would appear). This would be just desserts for Sadr’s shallow attempts at obfuscating his militia’s role in the fighting. And it would spawn a round of internecine fighting that would do much of the needed dirty work of dismantling the Mahdi Army.
But, realistically the task will fall upon Iraq’s security forces. While the Iraqi Security Forces – the police and Army – have been accused of corruption and facilitating the violence, one thing is clear: they fight and dies at a rate greater than that of U.S. and Coalition forces. Iraq Coalition Casualty Counts puts the number of police and Army killed at 4310 since January of 2005, and estimates 5,610 were killed fighting the insurgency and militias since May of 2003. Their effectiveness can be questioned, but their bravery should not. They have fought Sadr’s forces in Baghdad, Balad, Baquba, Diwaniyah, Amara and elsewhere. Let them finish the job. Maliki needs to make the call.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.