Iraqi security forces battle the Mahdi Army

Muqtada al Sadr. Click to view.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: The cease-fire extension issued by Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army, appears to be in jeopardy after the Iraqi government has launched an offensive against the Shia terror group in the southern city of Basrah. Dubbed Operation Knights’ Assault, Iraqi security forces have gone on the offensive to wrest control of the strategic oil hub and Iraq’s second largest city from Mahdi Army control. The fighting has spread to Baghdad and the southern provinces.

Knights’ Assault is an Iraqi-led operation and was ordered directly by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who is in Basrah to direct the operation along with Interior Minister Jawad Bolani. Basrah has seen an uptick in Iranian-backed terror activity since the British withdrew from the city late last year. Political assassinations and intimidation campaigns have been on the rise as the Iranians work to extend their influence in the oil-rich city.

At least 18 Iraqis were killed, including three policemen, and more than 100 were wounded in fighting in the southern city on Tuesday, as Iraqi troops advance to clear neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army. Fighting is reported to have broken out in Baghdad and Al Kut in Wasit province. Curfews have been imposed in Karbala, Wasit, Babil, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Basrah after fighting between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces broke out in the South.

The Sadrist Bloc, the political arm of the Mahdi Army, has boycotted Parliament and called for general strike and civil disobedience. Muqtada al Sadr has not officially withdrawn from the self-imposed cease-fire.

Mahdi Army forces have also launched mortar and rocket attacks at US and Iraqi bases in Baghdad. On March 25, twelve mortar and rocket strikes were launched at the International Zone, Forward Operating Base Falcon, Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah, and Joint Security Stations Thawra 1 and SUJ. The attacks were launched from Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold in Baghdad. On March 23, 15 civilians were killed during mortar and rocket attacks aimed at the sprawling Coalition military complex southern Baghdad.

US troops are acting in a support role in Basrah and the south, several US military officers told The Long War Journal. The US is providing intelligence, combat support, and air assets to back Iraqi security forces in Basrah and along the Iranian border.

US forces are also actively hunting the Mahdi Army cells in Baghdad conducting the mortar and rocket attacks. Coalition and Iraqi Army forces detained 11 Special Groups operatives believed to be behind a mortar attack on FOB Falcon.

The current Iraqi offensive has been in the works for some time. The Iraqi Army and police have been massing forces in the South since August 2007, when the Basrah Operational Command was established to coordinate efforts in the region. As of December the Iraqi Army deployed four brigades and an Iraqi Special Operations Forces battalion in Basrah province. The Iraqi National Police deployed two additional battalions to the province.

The clashes with the Mahdi Army come just weeks after Muqtada al Sadr admitted failure in Iraq. “So far I did not succeed either to liberate Iraq or make it an Islamic society – whether because of my own inability or the inability of society, only God knows,” Sadr wrote to his followers. “The continued presence of the occupiers, on the one hand, and the disobedience of many on the other, pushed me to isolate myself in protest. I gave society a big proportion of my life. Even my body became weaker, I got more sicknesses.”

Sadr declared an extension of his unilateral cease-fire on Feb. 22 after the US military and the Iraqi government brought significant political and military pressure on the Sadrist bloc and the “rogue” elements of the Mahdi Army. This decision caused sharp divisions inside the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army, with some politicians and military commanders vowing to fight the US military and the Iraqi government.

Sadr’s Mahdi Army has been formed by Iran’s Qods Force along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Imad Mugniyah, the senior Hezbollah military commander who was killed in Syria in February, was among those behind the formation and training of the Mahdi Army. Iran established the Ramazan Corps to run weapons, fighters, and support to the Special Groups, which include significant elements of Sadr’s 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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  • RedinTexas says:

    While we and the Iraqi military clean out AQI in Mosul, the Iraqi Army’s best can clean up Basra. Are there other areas in Iraq that still need a cleansing?

  • Neo says:

    An extensive write-up in the Christian Science Monitor titled “ACROSS IRAQ, BATTLES ERUPT WITH MAHDI ARMY

  • Alex says:

    What is the security status in Baghdad and Baqubah? How much of Baghdad province is under Iraqi government control?
    There’s a story that just came over the AP that Al-Sadr’s Basrah militia 72 hours to disarm.
    Petraeus’s next briefing should be quite interesting.

  • Marlin says:

    This falls a little into the gossip category, but there was a very interesting comment by ‘eggplant’ over at The Belmont Club post that linked to this post.

    I asked him why Sadr hadn’t been eliminated. He replied that the US had been told very early in the processs that killing off high ranking Shiite clerics was not an option. He also said that secretly eliminating Shiite clerics through use of a hired assassin, etc. would not work because people would eventually find out and there would be severe consequences. The USMC major expressed this information very emphatically, like its truth was beyond doubt or refutation. My impression is that someone very high up is protecting Sadr. The major also mentioned that Sadr has a serious drug addiction.

    The Belmont Club: How far against Sadr?

  • Marlin says:

    Steve Schippert makes what I consider to be a very valid point today.

    Muqtada blamed many things, including “more sickness,” for his seclusion. But it wasn’t his decision, and it is part of a trend that has been afoot for some time within Iran’s controlled terrorist groups: Figureheads are being supplanted by capable operational commanders. One does not undergo such a sweeping change in order to get more political; rather, it is to get more operational. Witness Baghdad and Basra in the past 48 hours.

    The Tank: In the War of Arms: Iran, not Muqtada, Directing Iraq Attacks

  • AMac says:

    Alexandra Zavis of the LA Times offered a rather different take on these developments. As printed on page 1A of sister paper the Baltimore Sun (emphasis added):
    — begin quote —
    The fighting, which Iraqi officials said killed at least 35 people and injured 100, was the most serious sign yet that a cease-fire credited with helping improve security nationwide might be unraveling as sections of the Shiite Muslim majority jockey for position ahead of provincial elections.
    Analysts warned that the fighting could spread as the Shiite factions used their influence within Iraq’s security forces to weaken their rivals ahead of the Oct. 1 polls. Yesterday’s violence “looks like a preview of what will happen as we approach provincial elections in the fall,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group.
    The U.S. military says it is targeting rogue elements of al-Sadr’s militia who continue to attack its forces, allegedly with Iranian backing, though Tehran denies the charges. Al-Sadr loyalists accuse his Shiite rivals in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and al-Maliki’s party, Islamic Dawa, of using the Iraqi army and police to round up the cleric’s followers ahead of the elections.
    [Hiltermann] was not “overly optimistic” that [the Basra security initiative] would succeed – “partly because the central government and its security forces aren’t very strong, and partly because this is really a fairly transparent partisan effort by the Supreme Council dressed in government uniforms to fight the Sadrists and Fadhile.” Al-Sadr has used the cease-fire to rein in rogue elements he said were disregarding his orders.
    — end quote —
    So, the facts as presented are that:
    — Operation Knights’ Assault is an initiative by one Shiite faction, the Supreme Council, to have its forces in the uniforms of the security forces fight rival Shiite factions (the Madhi Army and the Fadhile).
    — Al-Sadr has used the cease-fire to rein in rogue elements of the Madhi Army.
    In contrast, an allegation by the US military that the Iranians are backing al-Sadr’s militia is balanced by the Iranian government’s denial of the charge (so who really knows?).
    Bill, are you and Zavis based in the same country? Are you reporting on the same events?

  • Michael says:

    “So who really knows?”
    I’ll trust Petraeus any day against Sadr and the Iranians.
    We “really know” because Petraeus reported just recently about Iranian rockets raining down on the Green Zone.
    The man has been honest from the start. His word is reliable.
    The Iranians have everything to gain from chaos in Iraq – so to does Syria.
    This is a complex web of deceit between multi-state totalitarian regimes and their proxies coordinating attacks against Iraqis and our troops.
    Trust Petraeus. Normally Do Not Trust LA Times(unless this is a proven journalist of integrity) and never trust Iran or their proxies – Sadr.

  • doc99 says:

    How about this? Iran tells Mookie that since Mugsy’s left the building, he’s their man and to crank up his Mad Mehdi’s into high gear. This operation in Iraq is yet another in Iran’s series of Proxy wars. Here’s hoping that Operation Knight’s Assault marks the beginning of the end for the Mullahcracy and the end for the Mookster.

  • KW64 says:

    Real Iraqi independence requires the removal of Iranian agents like the Mehdi and government legitimacy requires the control of all militarized forces in the country. This action is a needed step in both aspects. The media can play this up as a failure of the surge; but in fact, it is just the next necessary step to paving the way for our force draw down in the future. The true measure of the success of the surge is when reduced American forces does not leave instability behind.

  • Keith says:

    Amazing, I was just logging in to ask a question that turned out to be the exact same question as RedinTexas: After Mosul and Basrah, what’s next?
    Anybody know? Is the war won?

  • AMac says:

    Michael @ 2:25pm —
    Thanks for your measured response. My earlier remark, “So who really knows?,” was meant as mild sarcasm, directed towards naive or disingenuous LA Times reporter Zavis.
    There has been plenty of documentation by Roggio and others of Iranian military engagement in Iraq, some directly, mostly via Iraqi proxies such as the Special Groups.
    It seems that Iranian involvement doesn’t fit the preferred narrative of much of the media, and it appears that many journalists resolve this dissonance by ignoring what the Coalition and the Iraqis document. And by being credulous on the occasion of Iranian denials of same.

  • MattR says:

    The fact that this has been in the works for some time is news to me. Thanks for this bit of information. Given that this has been planned, is there any expectation of how long this might take to clean up? Also, how is the distinction between the irreconcilable and reconcilable holding up within Sadr’s militia? i.e., is the IA fighting all of Sadr’s militia or just part of it?

  • Mark E says:
    This is the AP’s lead story right now. Of course, when something might go bad it’s presented as “the most important” battle of the 5 year war. It’s almost as if they are excited to have a chance ot see US defeat.

  • Dan R. says:

    I’ve resisted this idea up until now, but I’m finally starting to think that we (or the Iraqis) need to kill this cockroach and totally crush his organization to make an example of him. Private armies carrying guns loyal to a single figure and not controlled by the central government are fundamentally incompatable with a modern, democratic state. Private armies loyal to individual commanders are what eventually brought down the Roman empire.
    If Iraq is ever to be pacified, these private militias have to go. The Madhi Army is the most eggregious of the lot, so let’s make them “Job One.” But if at all possible, let the Iraqi Army do the dirty work. We’ve been training and equipping these guys for almost five years now. There have to be at least a couple of IA divisions somewhere that are up to the task.

  • Dave says:

    Sadr wants Iraq PM to leave Basra: aide
    Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has asked Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to leave Basra and called for negotiations to resolve the crisis in the southern port city, a top aide of Sadr told AFP on Wednesday.
    “Sadr has asked Prime Minister Maliki to leave Basra and to send a parliamentary delegation to resolve the crisis in the city,” the head of the Sadr movement’s political bureau, Liwa Sumaysim, said.

  • buck smith says:

    Amac makes some amusing statements:
    Al-Sadr has used the cease-fire to rein in rogue elements of the Madhi Army.
    The rogue elements that kept fighting after Mook called a cease-fire were captured and killed by the US and Iraqi army. I guess that reins them in.

  • AMac says:

    Buck Smith 7:47pm —

    Al-Sadr has used the cease-fire to rein in rogue elements he said were disregarding his orders.

    That’s not my claim, that’s the statement-of-fact of LA Times reporter Alexandra Zavis on Page 1 of the Baltimore Sun, and in other papers.
    Most Americans don’t read The Long War Journal, so most won’t realize that a qualified in-country observer can have a perspective that is very, very different from the one she presents.

  • therapist1 says:

    Keep your head down and on a swivel Bill.

  • Neo says:

    Considering the size of the city of Basra, I doubt if this fight will be over in a short period of time. I don’t think that the Mahdi army will be that easy to dislodge. Speculating on the mater is bit problematic since we know very little about the disposition of the enemy within Basra. I can’t tell from early reports if this is a large wholesale assault to take as much of northern Basra as possible or if the IA is going to methodically seize sections of city and build up control. It could also be a combination of the two. The IA could try pushing the Militia’s to see how much they will give, than set up their control areas before pushing again. Maybe in due time we will find out what really happened the last few days.
    I think we need to keep an open mind as to how powerful Sadr’s militia is. The 60,000 men under arms figure has been out there for over two years now without much revision. One thing is for sure. They are strong enough to be heard and cause a large number of problems. They are also strong enough to control the boarder areas (with a little help from their friends).
    There seems to be quite a bit of hyperventilating in the press about these developments. These are critical events but I’m not sure I buy into the impending doom that many seem determined to script. It’s funny how people develop certain themes which they want to push onto events. Some seem to think the “surge”

  • Michael says:

    Hard to tell sometimes when “/sarc on – sarc off/” if not familiar with everyones past remarks. Trying to be safe in response.
    I agree with the faux appearances and the lack of skepticism by our media towards Iran, whereas they are downright surly towards our own military.
    I personally think Iran is getting somewhat desperate and Sadr does not make a move without approval from up top. They’re testing and probing strengths, trying to see what they can get away with as well. This action is good test for IA and needs to be done while surge is still robust.
    We all knew the fake peace would not hold forever. They were simply restoring, reorganizing and waiting for a new opportunity. Iran wants a weak leader for America. They will play it how they see fit to attempt and manipulate weak voters both in Iraq and America.
    If Maliki is smart, he’ll ignore the calls for a “Hudna” or Fake Peace call and defeat the Sadr Army now, or force them out, win some of their leaders to his side, etc. Lead by strength. Unlike Pakistan, to weak and unfortunately to infiltrated with Taliban and AQ supporters they aquiesce to every fake peace jirga or hudna call. It appears Iraq is heading in the opposite direction. Certainly hope so, as it is the only thing our opponent understands, strength and overwhleming force. Otherwise, they will fight for another 1400 years.
    Long War Jounral – formerly Fourth Rail, highly regarded and needed…. as rebuttals to MSM opinions, uninformed or not.
    stay safe Bill.

  • the nailgun says:

    This looks very promising. This is happening at a place and time of Maliki’s choosing and he is directly involving himself. This must succeed which suggests he has enormous confidence it will.
    Al Maliki has got all his chess pieces in place and he’s making his move.
    I note some commentators in the MSM have Sadr pegged as some Ho Chi Minh of Iraq. My guess is he’ll be lucky to be the “Al Capone of Sadr City” by the end of it. Who knows he might have sphyllis too?

  • TS Alfabet says:

    Couple observations.
    1) Recall that the last 2 times the Mahdi Army has gone into open fights with the Coalition and IA they have been mauled badly. In fact, the last time (in Karbala, I think?) in August 2007 was what gave rise to the original “cease fire” order by the Mookster. So this is a dangerous game for Iran, which is the hand in the Mahdi glove (and to that extent I would disagree with motown67 that there is any difference in Iraq between the Mahdi forces and the Iranian forces; they are one and the same). These attacks, however, fit an Iranian pattern of sacrificing local forces for political gain or tactical advantage as, for example, Iran’s use of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran allowed their proxies to get chewed up pretty badly in order to test Israel’s strength and determination and to distract world attention from Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This could very well be going on now in Basra.
    2) Just as the Sunnis had to get their fill of Al Qaeda before they would cooperate decisively with the U.S., so too the Shiites will need to undergo a similar ordeal until it is clear that the only, real alternative is the GOI. So in this sense the battle for Basra is part of the process. From reports by Bill and others like Mike Totten and Mike Yon, it does seem like ordinary shiites are becoming increasingly angry with the mafia-like behavior of the Mahdis, particularly in Baghdad where Sunni attacks have largely stopped and the rationale/justification for the Mahdis is gone.
    3) Let’s all hope that the shiite militia struggle is not going to distract from putting the final nails in the Al Qaeda coffin in Mosul/Ninewa.

  • Rhyno327/lrsd says:

    Where do the British stand in this mess? After all, Basra was thier “baby”…will they stay out of the fight or will they leave the safety of the airport and fight the Mahdi? Already iam reading about US forces providing air cover and such. The Iranians got thier hands in this one, they are the ones providing arms and agents to wrestle Basra away from the Iraqi gov. The British need to roll out the armor and support Iraqi forces. As far as Mosul goes, how long are the terror groups going to be allowed to operate? We are getting to the decisive event of Maliki’s rule, and we are going to find out how bad/good Iraqi forces are. I bet before long, US armor and troops will be in Basra in force.

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    Three insights from the wonderfully titled Stake Through Their Hearts struck me as par…

  • Battle of the Basra

    U.S. jets drop bombs in Basra. Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal gives a brief history of this latest violence. Jules Crittendon in Forward Movement has a round up from around the net of ‘Sadr Tidings’.

  • Cutting the road to Kut, Part I

    And so, I’d like to offer up Kut as a metaphor for what is happening inside Iraq. If that road between Kut and Mehran can be “cut,” if Iran’s support for militants in Iraq who foment violence and discord can be cut, Iraq stands a much better chance o…

  • AMac says:

    According to the three [anonymous Madhi Army] commanders, the militia has received fresh supplies of weapons from Iran…[including] rockets, armor-piercing roadside bombs and anti-aircraft guns… Additionally, they said an infusion of cash from Iran has been spent on new communication centers…

    So the majority of American journalists routinely balance “allegations” by Coalition forces that Iran has been supplying the Madhi Army (weapons, cash, training) with denials of same by Iranian government spokesmen. Assigning equal credibility to each position.
    Thus, that “rogue” AP article quoted by Motown67 deserves a link.

  • Michael says:

    Sadr is the proxy of Iran in this battle from the beginning. He is mentored, trained, flushed with cash and supported by Iran.
    All informed people know this. To deny it, is to deny the truth. Iran is trying to open up a third front if you will in the region thru Sadr. Besides Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah have been captured and killed in Iraq training Shia extremist groups loyal to Sadr and trained by Iran.
    Also, while I agree with some of Keane’s statement regarding the PM, he is learning on the fly. It was still a bold move to take action on his part and insure his generals and leaders were in place. If he continues to stay and meddle to much however it will become a problem. He’s learning. Lets hope he realizes it would be a mistake to stay in the area. But we also have to realize Iraqis are different from Americans. This is a tribal battle as much as an ideological battle. Given the tribal and family context, it is not a surprise he is there.
    Plus, it shows Iran he means business. It is an overt way to show Iran to butt out once and for all.
    It will take decades if not a century for the tribal elements to progress past the current era where we Westerners in large swaths have forgotten our original tribal routes. And base our lives on meritocracy, not familial relations.
    I think the timing is as good as any. It has to be done, should’ve been done long ago. But, logistics and IA capability, plus the AQ fight may have prevented any large scale assault and COIN ops in Basra.
    The good news is in fact the PM and IA are leading the way. Lets hope they clean up mistakes and the Iraqi people rise up to help them.

  • Michael says:

    Posting new transcript from IA general re: Basra, Sadr, and Criminal Groups.
    I think the following transcript on events in Basra by General Abed is informative of how PM, MOI and MOD are handling the situation.
    What is very interesting is the open dialogue, questions from Arabic reporters and IRaqi news outlets. Whether you agree or not with the IA Generals assertions, I think this is great progress for a newly elected and more open society….
    I think the Operational Update, the transparency is great progress for Iraq culturally and politically, despite the actual problem. This is Iraqi leaders solving Iraqi problems without the brutal and corrupt force of the old Saddam era. They’re proving to be more humane in their operations, more considerate of the people, and more strategic in long term goals for the country. They’ve recognized that most people want peace and are being intimidated by the criminal elements of old, outdated sectarian violence.

  • anand says:

    motown67, your last comment is right on. And most of the top US leadership in Iraq agrees with what you said.
    All we should ask is that all Iranian assistance to and relations with Iraq go through the elected national government of Iraq.
    As long as that Iran does that, better relations between Iran and Iraq are good for Iran, Iraq, America and the rest of the world.


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