“Negotiating” with Sadr in Diwaniyah

Sadr’s Madhi Army the target of Iraqi and Coalition pressure in Diwaniyah

Muqtada al-Sadr.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iranian backed Shiite cleric, has been a thorn in the side of the Coalition and the fledgling Iraqi government. In the spring and late summer of 2004, U.S. forces fought intense battles against Sadr for control over the Shiite South and the holy city of Najaf. While Sadr’s militia, the Madhi Army, was militarily defeated, the Coalition failed to politically defeat Sadr, and he has remained a threat to this day. Sadr’s political party controls 30 of the 275 seats in Parliament, and runs five ministries.

While much of the public’s perceptions of the efforts against Sadr are shaped by operations in Sadr City in Baghdad, the Coalition and Iraqi government are chipping away at his power base outside of Baghdad. The series of raids and clashes, often masked as efforts against “criminals,” “thugs,” “death squads,” and “kidnappers,” are being conducted against the extreme elements of Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The goal is to remove Sadr from a position of influence, either by force or his surrender, and split his power base. Sadr’s lieutenants are being systematically targeted, which will drive him to either fight or withdraw.

A window into these operations is available in the city of Diwaniyah. A joint U.S. and Iraqi operation, dubbed Constant Solidarity has been announced at the end of September. The operation is made up of elements of the 8th Iraqi Army Division, supported the soldiers of the Fires Brigade (artillery), 4th Infantry Division. The purpose is to “weed out more than 2,000 terrorists in and around the city of Diwaniyah.” Diwaniyah is a Sadr stronghold, the “terrorists” being referred to here are the Madhi Army. To demonstrate the seriousness of the operation, the U.S. has deployed MLRS launchers (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System) in the region to hit back at the Madhi Army.

Constant Solidarity is said to have begun on September 1, however just days prior to the operation, Iraqi soldiers and the Madhi Army fought a pitched battle on August 27th and 28th, and the Mahdi Army took disproportional losses. Over 50 Madhi fighters were killed, compared to 20 Iraqi soldiers..The Iraqi Army held their ground, and the Madhi Army was forced to withdraw under the watchful eye of the Iraqi Army in the region.

Constant Solidarity continued through the month of September. The Iraqi Army and Coalition forces pursued Sadr’s forces in Diwaniyah. On the 14th of September, “Iraqi Army units liberated a man who was being held and tortured by members of an illegal armed group,” according to a Coalition press release. The Coalition directly points to Sadr’s Madhi Army, although it does not mention it by name. This gives elements of the Madhi Army, and even Sadr himself, an ‘out’ if they choose to accept it.

The suspects are members of a group engaged in sectarian violence against Iraqi citizens, the rule of law, and the authority of the Iraqi government. Their illegal actions include “death squad” activities, the supervision of indirect fire attacks and emplacement of improvised explosive devices in the Ad Diwaniyah area, direct leadership of militia units against Iraqi Army units on August 27th and 28th, and acting as a leadership node for other coordinated and complex attacks against Iraqi army and police forces.

Also on the 14th, U.S. units raided the office of one of Sadr’s clerics. The incident sparked a fight with the regional government. “After the US force withdrew, several dozen Sadr supporters marched to the office of the local governor’s office. Guards there opened fire on them, wounding four,” according to News.au.com. Another raid was carried out on the 17th, units from the 8th Iraqi Army and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division conducted Operation Wilderness, designed to capture “terrorists suspected of numerous attacks on innocent Iraqi civilians, Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces, in the area over the past few weeks.” Thirty two members of Sadr’s militia were arrested. On the 21st, another raid netted “Salah al-Obeidi, a close colleague of firebrand Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was picked up from his home in Najaf along with cleric Bassim al-Ghuraifi,” according to Sadr’s own office.

On the 22nd, the Washington Post noted that Sadr’s allies are aware of the strategy. Abdul Razzak al-Nedawi, “a leader of the Sadr movement in Diwaniyah,” recognized the Coalition and Iraqi government are pushing Sadr into a corner. “It is obvious they want to draw the Sadr movement into a military confrontation… But we are trying our best to avoid such confrontation and find alternative ways to armed confrontation,” said al-Nedawi.

On the 24th, Sadr himself began to “urges followers to resort to ‘peaceful’ opposition.” “I want you to wage a peaceful war against them (Americans). I do not wish to see a single drop of blood shed because it is very dear to us. Engage them (Americans) in a popular, peaceful and political war,” Sadr said in a speech to his followers. Soon afterward, the Sunni political block began insisting the militias be disarmed. On the 28th, reports began to emerge the U.S. is forcefully pushing for the dismantlement of the militias (read Madhi Army) and yet again accused Iran of providing arms and money to Sadr. The conventional wisdom in the media is Sadr is losing control over elements of his militia. This also provides Sadr with an out, and sets the stage for splitting the Madhi Army.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • DJ Elliott says:

    Updated version of Teddy’s tactics:
    Talk softly and bring a MLRS…

  • Marlin says:

    I hope that pretty soon they start to ‘negotiate’ with the Mahdi army in Baghdad as well.
    Abu Maha admits freely that he kills and kidnaps Sunni “terrorists”

  • hamidreza says:

    I believe the GMLRS will be extremely effective against guerrillas. This must be one reason Sadr is starting to complain about the heat.
    The Iraqi army and intelligent services should arrest the 30 Sadr parliamentarians. This would allow a coalition of Kurds and seculars and Sunnis to implement a vote of no confidence against Maliki, and take over the Iraqi government. I am pretty sure some Shiite elements (e.g. Chalabi) will join them.
    There was a coup in Thailand and nary a leftist shed a single tear for the dismantling of democracy in Thailand.
    I belive leftists are begging for the dismantling of democracy in Iraq and will not protest a coup. The arrest of Sadr parliamentarians will be greeted in silence. The government can then institute new elections for the replacement of the parliamentarians and vet out the candidates. Sadr has got to be eliminated and all other militias put on notice.

  • Michael says:

    Excellent wrap-up Bill. When I heard Sadr complaining about evil Americans preventing the 12th Imam from returning – I figured the pressure was being turned up.
    This is good news. He knows he has no chance. I guess the real issues are 1) Can we create a Iraqi police force independent of such militias, 2) Iraqi army that is independent.
    It seems I remember they’re creating classes in ethics. I hope they all get extra training as to their duties to be faithful for Iraq and not to Shia/Sunni alliance. And hopefully education is being handled the same in schools.

  • Solomon2 says:

    So the strategy is to quietly deprive Sadr of his army and leave him hanging, unsupported. The problem with that is that he will not be discredited. He can then wait for a bit, claim that his militia dissolved because his intentions were peaceful all along, then secretly recruit once more and invent some pretext to send a new militia into action.
    This fate can only be avoided if the idea of militias is discredited. As Islam puts a premium on leadership by armed action, how can that be possible unless more Iraqis value good government over the literal demands of their religion, and are willing to preserve it through armed action, if necessary?
    I compute, then, that the Iraqi government itself must openly show more gumption in going after Sadr. Yet that can’t happen without contradicting the current strategy, is that not so? Paradox.

  • Sunni leaders putting together a 30,000 man force to take on al Qaeda in Iraq???

  • Dale in Armstrong says:

    I’ll boil it down to it’s very basics:
    We should’ve killed him 3 years ago; right after the invastion, he was responsible for wiping out some of his fellow Shi’ite cleric competition, like Hakim; and the sooner we kill him NOW, the better Iraq will be!
    He’s a Qomi (from the Shi’ite Holy city of “Qom” in Iran) Shi’ite cleric of the typical Iranian Usuli Ithna Asheri Shi’ites, and as a result, he’s a political activist, in the Khomeini mode.
    What’s ironic about that, is because he is ethnically Iraqi and thus Arab, and the Usuli’s are typically ethnically Persian.
    But, he probably got this from his father, and from all the years he spent in Iran in exile.
    The other irony in all of this is that As Sadr’s rival, Ayatollah Sistani, who is ethnically Persian, comes from a distinguished Najafi (Iraqi Shi’ite Holy City!) line of Ithna Asheri supposedly Usuli Shi’ite clerics!
    So, the situation is such, that it’s exactly opposite of what you’d expect of the two!
    Shi’ite analysts, have in the past two years, invented a new “distinction” between Sadr and Sistani, claiming that Sadr comes from the “activist” or “political” branch of the Usuli Ithna Asheris; and that Sistani comes from the “quietist” branch of the Usuli Ithan Asheris!
    There is, however, despited the bogus analysis put out by dedicated Sadr apologists, like Juan Cole, there is NO precedent for this “fine” distinction among the Usulis in Shi’ite history.
    My suspicions, is that Sistani, is, and has been, a “closet” AKHBARI Shi’ite, of the Ithna Asheri line.
    Since all Shi’ites practice TAQIYYAH (dissembling); it would not be unprecedented for a Shi’ite cleric to actually say one thing, and do another!
    And, since the Akhbaras are in fact, ensconced almost entirely in Iraqi Shi’ite tradition (mainly around Basra, a few in Iran), and the Akhbaris act/believe “politically” EXACTLY as Sistani acts/believe; it only is Logical, that Sistani, regardless of his supposed public roots as an Usuli, is in fact, a practicing Akhbari!
    I’ve argued this point for 15 years; and we may never know, for sure, because no one can see inside someone’s mind, to see if they are actually practicing TAQIYYAH, but the evidence is in the actions and the results, and Sistani acts like an Akhbari, whether he publically proclaims it or not!
    Bottomline, we have to continue to do whatever we can, to maintain Sistani’s pre-eminnce within the Iraqi Shi’ite community, and to either force out Sadr, or kill him.
    If Sadr wins out over Sistani, in anyway, it will be the end for the Usuli “quietists” /Akhbaris in Iraq, and the ascendancy of the Iranian style Usulis instead, and then, we’re in serious trouble there!

  • Andrew R. says:

    I think that one of the more disturbing aspects of a Mahdi Army crack-up is that even though it leaves Sadr with less power, it also means that there are going to be trigger happy Shi’ites bent on revenge who effectively answer to no one. At least Sadr can and has been forced to call off his militia when things get rough for him.

  • Wally Lind says:

    My understanding is that Al Sadr is a murderer, so why not arrest him on those charges? I believe the charges are legally extant. Perhaps he and his Mahdi Army will resist arrest and Al Sadr can claim the coveted status as a maryter.
    But he has avoided personal involvement in the combat he has started with U.S. troops, from what I have read. Perhaps taking personal risks are simply beneath him?

  • hamidreza says:

    Hi Bill – the new format of 4th rail is much improved and thanks for all this work. Some comments on what I see as issues with the new format:
    I miss the ” | main | ” control on top.
    Also, the date and time of the post can be at the top instead of bottom.
    Finally, there is still that confusion in the comments section as to who is the author of a post. The author is separated by a line, while the previous author does not have the line.
    And last but not least is the moderation delay in the comments. This has effectively prevented debates, and I believe this will reduce interest in your fine blog. If the issue is robot spammers, then you can install one of those “enter the following code” controls to stop them. If the issue is ungentlemanly behaviour, then you can always delete the post when you view them.
    You may not agree, and I think you do not agree, but for most readers the comment section is very important, and a source of attraction to your blog.
    best regards

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Many of the changes you are looking for will be reincorporated in the next iteration of the redesign.
    Concerning comments. Moderation will not change. I receive far too many comments that blatantly violate the comments policy I have established. I have repeatedly warned about this. Commenters repeatedly ignore the warnings. I send emails to readers, many of whom often give bogus email addresses (yourself for instance), so my time is wasted on sending an explanation. When I do get a response, more often than not I’m accused of being a censor, Nazi, etc.
    I’ve adopted the policy on comments as I want a discussion on the issues at hand, not senseless attacks on liberalism, conservatism, leftism, and other isms. Or off topic posts that completely detract from the debate (such as this comment). Had you thought of emailing me?
    I greatly value the comments of the readers. The insights often help me with my work. I’d prefer to never have to edit or delete a single comment. But the reality of the situation is my attempts at explaining this often falls on deaf ears. Editing comments after published only creates more confusion, so I won’t do that.
    My apologies, but there is no other solution to the comments problem. Other than turning them off completely.

  • Big Lizards says:

    Sadr and Masri: the Final Embrace

    Excuse me, does anybody remember that there’s a war on? There is a lot to talk about in Iraq. So let’s not lose focus; there is a lot more serious stuff going on than some stupid Republican creep and a…

  • Devin Leonard says:

    The real story here (a story the mainstream press all to often ignores for their own political agendas), is that the Mahdi Army is getting outfought and vastly outkilled by US Forces, and even by Iraqi forces.
    Besides the obvious significance of defeating the Mahdi army yet again (the US Military routed the Mahdi Army back in 2004) it is important to note that the Mahdi Army is trained, financed and supported by Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah guerilla warfare instructors have been going in and out of Iraq, to train Mahdi militia members. In fact the Hezbollah team had to flee to Iran back in May, because Delta Force had been sent to hunt down and capture or kill the Hezbollah unit. Hezbollah high-tailed it back to Iran thus saving themselves the humiliation of defeat and capture by the world’s top US “Counter Terror” unit. Even still the training that Hezbollah agve to the Mahdi militia members is similar to the training they used against the IDF. and just as the IDF killed some 500 Hezbollah fighters in the last Lebanon conflict…we are killing hundreds of Hezbollah and Iranian trained Mahdi Militiamen every month in Iraq.


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