Pressure on Sadr and the Iranian-backed Special Groups continues

The Mahdi Army. Click image to view.

As previously reported at The Long War Journal, US and Iraqi forces have stepped up operations against the Iranian-backed and Mahdi Army-linked Special Groups terror cells. The increase in activity comes as Muqtada al Sadr is deliberating the reinstatement or cancellation of the self-imposed cease-fire.

Since the last report, the US military has singled out a former Mahdi Army commander as being behind violence in northern Baghdad while a senior spokesman said Iran is still supporting terror operations in Iraq. “The intent of Iran in supporting the training and financing [the Special Groups] we believe continues,” said Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the director of Multinational Forces Iraq’s Communication Division. “In just the past week, Iraqi and coalition forces captured 212 weapons caches across Iraq, two of those coming from here inside Baghdad, with growing links to the Iranian-backed special groups.”

A look at the press releases from Multinational Forces Iraq’s website shows the command has stepped up operations to counter the Special Groups. Eight operations were reported against the terror cells in the three-day period from Feb. 12 to Feb. 14. Ten encounters were reported from Feb. 15 to Feb. 17. Several of the engagements, including a major clash between police and a Special Groups platoon, involved Iraqi security forces:

• Iraqi National Police clashed with a company of approximately 40 operatives of the Arkan Hasnawi Special Groups Network in the Sha’ab neighborhood on Feb. 10. Four police were wounded after refusing to surrender. The leader of the group behind the Sha’ab attack was later captured by US troops in the same neighborhood on Feb. 15. He was behind multiple attacks on US and Iraqi security forces.

• Iraqi security forces captured six “criminals” – a term often used to describe the Special Groups – in the Rashid district of Baghdad and one in Hillah on Feb. 10.

• On Feb. 10, US soldiers discovered a cache of five explosively formed penetrators and other bomb-making material and weapons near Jurf Nadaf, a village east of Baghdad. This was the second EFP cache found in the village in three days.

• Iraqi security forces captured a Special Groups operative during a raid in Baghdad on Feb. 12. The operative distributed improvised explosive devices, EFPs, and rockets and was part of a cell responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering Iraqi citizens.

• Iraqi Special Operations Forces captured a Special Groups cell leader and a cell member near Hillah on Feb. 13. The cell is behind IEDs, EFPs, and mortar attacks and the kidnapping, torturing, and murdering Iraqi citizens.

• Members of the Sons of Iraq in West Rashid turned over a Special Groups fighter to US forces on Feb. 15.

• US troops arrested two policemen and a Special Groups operative after finding an EFP and 10 mortar rounds in the Abu T’Shir neighborhood in Baghdad on Feb. 16.

• Coalition forces killed an armed man during a raid on a Special Groups finance facilitation network in the Suwayrah area on Feb. 17.

• US soldiers captured a top lieutenant of Arkan Hasnawi, a Special Groups leader, during an operation in northern Baghdad Feb. 17. “Northern Baghdad is an area that Special Groups criminals have wanted to dominate for some time, and it is pretty clear that this is the foreign influenced Special Groups,” said Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander, the executive officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, which operates in the region.

Several of the press releases ended with the standard warning to Sadr and his Mahdi Army. “We will continue to disrupt the networks of those who choose not to obey al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire pledge. … The people of Iraq have made it clear that they will not tolerate the criminal activities of these splinter groups.” The US military is warning Sadr that ending the cease-fire will result in operations designed to dismantle the Mahdi Army.

The identification of the Arkan Hasnawi Special Groups Network as a major threat is another overt message to Sadr. Arkan Hasnawi was a brigade commander in Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and thus serves as a link to Sadr. 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. Three are still missing.

The Iraqi government is also applying legal pressure on Sadr. The government will begin the trial of former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al Zamili and Brigadier General Hameed al Shimmari, who served as the chief of the ministry’s security forces. Both Zamili and Shimmari, who are members of the Mahdi Army, were arrested by Iraqi soldiers last year after being charged with running terror operations from the Health Ministry. The Health Ministry was one of six ministries run by Sadr’s political party before it withdrew from the government. A spokesman for the Sadrist movement called the charges “false and baseless.”

The increase in military, legal, and political pressure is causing rifts within the Mahdi Army and Sadrist movement leadership. One of the five panels formed by Sadr to advise on the course of action with regards to the cease-fire has counseled against the extension. Salih al Ukayli, a Sadrist movement parliamentarian, has openly pushed to end the cease-fire.

Sadr’s decision to either continue or end the cease-fire has serious implications for his political movement. Ending the ceasefire puts him in the crosshairs of the US and Iraqi military, and expose the depth or shallowness of his support in the Shia community. This would also risk any remaining goodwill that exists in the Shia community, which has enjoyed the recent reduction in violence and has become increasingly hostile to the activities of the Mahdi Army.

But extending the ceasefire may further erode Sadr’s power within his political movement and the Mahdi Army. “As the pressures on the Sadrist Current mount with what it sees as a campaign of politically motivated arrests against its supporters, it may raise the question of Muqtada al Sadr’s ability to impose his will on the political leadership of the Sadrist Current,” IraqSlogger reported. Sadr’s inability to enforce a ceasefire would reduce his political and military power, which has waned over the past year since the surge began.

For more information on the Special Groups and Iran’s role in the Iraqi insurgency, see Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq and Targeting the Iranian “Secret Cells.” For more information on the Mahdi Army, see Sadr calls for Mahdi Army cease-fire and Dividing the Mahdi 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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