US and Iraq forces continue to target the Iranian-backed Special Groups in southern and central Iraq. The latest raid in Al Kut in Wasit province resulted in 11 Special Groups fighters killed, Multinational Forces Iraq reported. Al Kut, a logistical hub for the Special Groups and center of power for Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, has seen an uptick in activity over the past two weeks.
Today’s raid in Al Kut targeted “a Special Groups criminal element member reportedly responsible for attacks against Coalition forces and supporters of Coalition forces” who “was also reportedly an associate of criminal element leaders involved in attacks on Coalition forces.”
Coalition Special Forces teams, likely the hunter-killer teams of Task Force 88, took fire as they approached the objective, “returned fire, and called for supporting aircraft to engage.” Multinational Forces Iraq estimated 11 Special Groups fighters were killed in the strike.
The Iraqi Army has been reported to have moved into Al Kut in force, according to Voices of Iraq. Muqtada al Sadr’s office in Al Kut stated US forces fought the Mahdi Army in the city, and four Mahdi fighters were killed and three wounded.
The incident highlights the fractured nature of the Mahdi Army, and the interconnectedness of Mahdi Army forces and Iran’s Qods Force that supports Sadr and elements of his Mahdi Army. The Special Groups are made up of elements of Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which trains, arms, and funds the attacks inside Iraq. Sadr called for a cease-fire after fighting in Najaf resulted in more than 50 dead during a religious festival.
Multinational Forces Iraq has repeatedly offered Sadr and his Mahdi Army an outlet to end the fighting and joint the political process. In the Multinational Forces Iraq press release on the incident, Major Winfield Danielson pointed to Sadr’s cease-fire while warning the “criminal elements” that they would be pursued. “We commend all those who honor al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire pledge,” said Danielson. “Significant progress has been made in the fight for a secure and stable Iraq, but dangerous criminal elements still exist.” A similar warning follows every press release where Special Groups forces are targeted.
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Al Kut is known to be a strategic distribution hub for the Special Groups supply lines from Iran into Iraq. Weapons, such as the deadly explosively formed penetrator land mines, rockets, and mortars are stored by the Special Groups in Al Kut and other cities, to be pushed forward to tactical depots to be used in attacks in Baghdad and the Shia South.
US and Iraqi forces clearly have been targeting the Special Groups networks in Al Kut for the past two weeks. Today’s engagement was the fourth such raid since December 18. On that date, elements of the 8th Iraqi Army Division captured an improvised explosive device cell leader during a raid in the city. “The suspect, reported to be a leader within the Office of the Martyr Sadr in An Nasiriyah, is allegedly linked to illegal armed groups in the area and conducts and facilitates IED attacks specifically targeting Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces throughout Wasit Province,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported in a press release.
Coalition forces captured three Special Groups fighters during an operation in Al Kut on December 23. The target of the raid was a “senior-level Special Groups criminal element leader” who planned explosively formed penetrator attacks in Wasit province, as well as a leader of a death squad. It is unknown if the Special Groups leader was captured in the raid.
The next day, Coalition forces killed two Special Groups operatives and captured two during a raid in Al Kut. Coalition forces sought to capture a “Special Groups leader responsible for attacks against Coalition forces and its supporters” who “received training on urban combat tactics and explosives, including Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).”