Major Marty Weber holds an Iranian made 107mm rocket at a press conference in Baghdad in April [AFP/Getty Images]. Click to view.
Mahdi Army rocket team killed in helicopter, ground strikes as operations increase in Muqtada’s stronghold in Baghdad
The return of Muqtada al Sadr from his four months of self imposed exile in Iran has led to a spike in activity against his political leadership and the extremist elements of his fractured Mahdi Army. Over the past few days, U.S. and Iraqi forces have conducted multiple operations in Sadr City, and over the past 24 hours, killed 4 Mahdi fighters and captured 6 after attacking a rocket team in the northeastern district.
On Saturday and Sunday, U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted air and ground operations against Mahdi Army “rocket” teams targeting the Green Zone (or International Zone). Apache Longbow attack helicopters from the 1st “Attack” Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division killed 4 Mahdi fighters and destroyed 10 rockets and 1 truck. The air attack was followed up by a ground raid by soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Six Mahdi fighters were captured in “a residence inside Sadr City.” Reuters reported the engagement occurred in the neighborhood of Habibibya, which U.S. forces cordoned.
The Multinational Forces Iraq press release was clear the Mahdi cell was firing rockets, and not smaller mortars. The word “rocket” was used 7 times in the press release. U.S. forces found 107mm rockets in a field north of Sadr City on Friday. “[The cache] was found in an area known to locals as the ‘Jaish Al Mahdi Forbidden Zone,’ where some rocket attacks on Baghdad’s International Zone have originated,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported. “The cache contained 20 107mm rocket warheads, three fully assembled 107mm rockets, one 60mm mortar and a sandbag full of blasting devices.”
The Washington Post noted on Saturday that Iran has been supplying Shia insurgents with 240mm rockets, with a range of 30 miles, known as the Fajr-3. “Three of the rockets have targeted U.S. facilities in Baghdad’s Green Zone, and one came very close to hitting the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital, according to the U.S. officials.” These are the same rockets Hezbollah fired into northern Israel from Lebanon during the Israel-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006.
Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces have launched numerous raids against the Iranian backed Mahdi cells in Baghdad and elsewhere. Seventeen members of this network have been killed and 41 captured during numerous raids over the past three weeks.
Since Thursday, the tempo against Mahdi Army forces and Sadr’s leadership has been high. Reports indicate U.S. and Iraq forces are currently hunting for two of Sadr’s senior lieutenants in the southern city of Diwaniyah. On Thursday, U.S. and Iraq Special Forces raided the home of Zahra al-Suidi, the head of Sadr’s office in Sadr City, and confiscated computers. U.S., Iraqi and British commandos are said to be conducting multiple operations daily in Sadr city since the five kidnapped Britons are believed to have been taken inside the district after being abducted from the Finance ministry early last week. Today, Iraqi police searched a mosque in Sadr City “after receiving a report there were heavy weapons located on the roof.”
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been working to secure Sadr City as part of the Baghdad Security Plan. To date, the progress has been slow going. The densely populated district, with an estimate of upwards of 2,000,000 residents, only has 2 brigades assigned – one National Police and one U.S. Army brigade. Only one Joint Security Station has been reported to have been established, and the last report, from over 3 weeks ago, indicated that 40% of Sadr City has been cleared. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi National Police just “completed a three-week-long project to emplace protective barriers around a large market in Sadr City allowing residents to shop at the market safely and securely.” Markets in an around Sadr City have been the prime target for al Qaeda’s mass casualty suicide attacks.
It is unclear if Sadr’s return from Iran has impacted the expected push into Sadr City, or if Iraqi and Coalition forces are concentrating forces elsewhere, such as western Baghdad, and the belts of Diyala, southern Salahadin, eastern Anbar and northern Babil provinces. As Sadr attempts to regain control of his militia, U.S. and Iraq forces continue to undermine his leadership by striking at his senior lieutenants and working to split the more moderate elements of the Mahdi Army from the Iranian-backed extremist elements.
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