Iraqi police patrol in Basrah. Photo from Alalam News. Click to view.
Fighting in Basrah and Baghdad and throughout much of the South continues as Iraqi security forces and Multinational Forces Iraq press the fight against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terror groups. The Iraqi Army has moved additional forces to Basrah as the US and Iraqi military have conducted significant engagements in Shia areas of Baghdad. The Mahdi Army has taken significant casualties. The US military has denied the Mahdi Army has taken control of checkpoints in Baghdad.
Several hundred Iraqis are reported to have been killed during the fighting since the operation began on March 25. A large majority of them are Mahdi Army fighters, according to the press reports. The US and Iraqi military have killed more than 70 Mahdi Army fighters in Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad alone over the past three days.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who is in Basrah supervising Operation Knights’ Assault, has given the Mahdi Army 72 hours to lay down their weapons. “We are not going to chase those who hand over their weapons within 72 hours,” Maliki said. “If they do not surrender their arms, the law will follow its course.”
Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist movement, is calling for an end to the fighting, according to a statement released by Hazem al Aaraji, a close aide to Sadr. He called for “everyone to pursue political solutions and peaceful protests and a stop to the shedding of Iraqi blood.”
The Iraqi opposition held an emergency session in parliament, but only 54 of the 275 lawmakers attended, AFP reported. “The two main parliamentary blocs — Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Alliance — were not present for the session which was attended by lawmakers from radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, the small Shiite Fadhila Party, the secular Iraqi National List and the Sunni National Dialogue Council,” according the AFP report. The main political blocs in Iraq’s parliament have given their support to the military operations by ignoring the emergency session.
Fighting in Basrah
Basrah has been the scene of the majority of the fighting. Major General Ali Zaidan said that 120 Mahdi Army and other Shia terrorists have been killed since the fighting began, while another 450 have been wounded. Iraqi police said they have captured 218 “militiamen” since the start of the operation on March 25. But the Mahdi Army is said to be controlling some neighborhoods in Basrah, and the Iraqi Army is meeting stiff resistance when attempting to entry these neighborhoods.
The Mahdi Army is targeting senior military and police leaders in the southern city. Major General Abdul Jalil Khalaf, the chief of police in Basrah, narrowly missed an attempt on his life after the Mahdi Army hit his convoy with a roadside bomb. Three officers were killed in the attack. Brigadier General Eidaan Muttar, Khalaf’s deputy, also survived an IED attack on his convoy.
The Iraqi military continues to beef up its security forces in the South. The Army and police have committed the equivalent of two additional brigades of security forces. Maliki ordered five extra battalions to the city, putting the number of Iraqi Army in Basrah at 15,000 troops. Additional elements from the Emergency Response Units, Iraqi Special Operations Forces, and helicopter support have been moved to Basrah.
Coalition forces have served in a largely advisory and support role. US military and police trainers are embedded with Iraqi units, while Multinational Forces Iraq is supplying logistical and air support for Iraqi forces. Coalition air forces conducted two attacks on Mahdi Army positions in Basrah, an Iraqi source told The Associated Press.
Fighting in Baghdad
As the fighting in Basrah is under way, the fighting in Baghdad has intensified. US and Iraqi security forces have clashed with the Mahdi Army in Shia-dominated neighborhoods numerous times in Baghdad since the fighting began on Tuesday. Major fire-fights have broken out in Sadr City, Adhamiyah, Rusafa, New Baghdad, Kadhamiyah, Mansour, and other neighborhoods in northern and eastern Baghdad where the Mahdi Army has a significant presence.
US and Iraqi security forces killed 26 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad on March 26. Another 42 Mahdi Army fighters were killed in a series of battles throughout Baghdad on March 27. Eight of the Mahdi Army fighters were killed after they attempted to overtake an Iraqi Army checkpoint. The Iraqi soldiers beat off the attack, losing one soldier in action.
The Times Online claimed the Iraqi Army and police have abandoned checkpoints in Baghdad, but the US military denied the Mahdi Army is in control of police and Army checkpoints in Baghdad.
“All checkpoints and ISF [Iraqi security forces] buildings are in ISF and/or Coalition control. No checkpoint is in enemy control,” said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Stover, the Public Affairs Officer for the 4th Infantry Division and Multinational Division Baghdad in an e-mail response to questions from The Long War Journal. “There were several cases where the ISF needed our assistance (and more often than not – did not) and either CF [Coalition forces] ground or air responded and either reinforced or took back in a couple occasions the CP or IP [Iraqi Police] building – none of that happened today.”
The Mahdi Army and Iranian-backed terrorists of the Special Groups have continued to fire mortars and rockets at US and Iraqi outposts in the city. One Coalition soldier, two US civilians, and one Iraqi Army soldier were wounded in an attack launched on March 26. Sixteen rockets were fired in four separate volleys.
One civilian was killed and 14 civilians and five soldiers were wounded during a series of 11 mortar attacks throughout Baghdad on March 27. US soldiers killed two terrorists as they acted as spotters for the mortar teams. On March 28, two security guards for Sunni Vice President Tareq al Hashemi were wounded in a mortar attack in the International Zone.
Terrorists also conducted a successful kidnapping in Baghdad, according to an unconfirmed report from Baghdad. Tahseen Sheikhly, the civilian spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, was kidnapped and three of his bodyguards were kidnapped after his home was assaulted. The terrorists then burned down his home.
Fighting in Al Kut, Nasiriyah
The fighting has not been contained to Baghdad and Basrah. Clashes are being reported in Al Kut, Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah, and Hillah.
Heavy fighting has been reported in Al Kut, one of the main hubs of Special Groups activities in the south. The Special Groups store weapons in Al Kut after transporting them across the border from Iran. More than 40 people have been killed and 75 wounded during fighting in the city and surrounding regions in Wasit province, according to General Abdul Hanin Hamoud Saleh al Amara, a police chief in the province. The fighting in Al Kut began on March 25. Iraqi police killed 11 Mahdi Army fighters in Al Kut on March 26.
Iraqi security forces are also active in Diwaniyah, another transit point for Iranian-made weapons. A Sadrist spokesman said Iraqi security forces captured four leaders of the Sadrist movement and 12 other members of the group in Diwaniyah on March 28. Terrorists responded by launching seven mortars at the headquarters for the 8th Iraqi Army Division in Diwaniyah. No casualties were reported.
The Iraqi Army and police have been active in Babil province. Hillah’s Iraqi Special Weapons and Tactics unit attacked a Special Groups unit in Hillah on March 26. The Hillah Swat team killed 14 Special Groups fighters and wounded 20. The Iraqi Army said it captured a commander of a terror cell in Al Hashimiyah, south of Hillah. Seven other Sadrist leaders believed to be behind attacks in Hillah were captured by the police.
The Mahdi Army is said to have taken control of the center of the city of Nasiriyah, the capital of Dhi Qhar province. Nasiriyah is a strategic city in the south as it sits at the major crossroads for roads running north to south and east to west.
For more information on Iran’s involvement in Iraq, see Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.