About 200 demonstrators held a rally to support the military operations in Basra and Maliki’s government, in Diwaniya on Saturday. Reuters Photograph.
With the fifth day of fighting in Baghdad, Basrah and the South completed, the Mahdi Army has suffered major losses over the past 36 hours. The Mahdi Army has not fared well over the past five days of fighting, losing an estimated two percent of its combat power, using the best case estimate for the size of the militia.
A look at the open source press reports from the US and Iraqi military and the established newspapers indicates 145 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 81 were wounded, 98 were captured, and 30 surrendered during the past 36 hours.
Since the fighting began on Tuesday 358 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 531 were wounded, 343 were captured, and 30 surrendered. The US and Iraqi security forces have killed 125 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad alone, while Iraqi security forces have killed 140 Mahdi fighters in Basra.
While the size of the Mahdi Army is a constant source of debate, media accounts often put the Mahdi Army at anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 fighters. With an estimated 1,000 Mahdi fighters killed, captured, wounded and surrendered, the Mahdi Army has taken an attrition rate of 1.5 to 2.5 percent over the past five days.
The political front
The major political parties in the ruling Coalition remain united in supporting the offensive against the Mahdi Army and the Iranian-backed Special Groups cells. President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barazani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government reiterated their support for the operation on Friday, while Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Shia terror groups.
Maliki called the Shia terrorists “worse than al Qaeda” and vowed to remain in Basrah until the operation is completed. “Our determination is strong … those who break the law are punished, and those who draw their weapons in the face of the state are punished,” Maliki said on Iraqi state television.
Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army currently sheltering in Iran, has called on his militia to keep their weapons in defiance to Maliki’s order, and but still calls for negotiated settlement to the fighting as well as civil disobedience. “Muqtada al Sadr asks his followers not to deliver weapons to the government,” said Hassan Zargan, a Sadr aide. “Weapons should be turned over only to a government which can expel the (US) occupiers.”
The Sadrist movement claimed numerous Iraqi policemen and soldiers are defecting. “Groups of Iraqi troops came to us to lay down their arms,” said Sheikh Salam al Afraiji, the leader of the Sadrist movement in eastern Baghdad.
But the spokesman of Baghdad Operations Command denied Iraqi security forces are defecting en masse. “The registered number that we have [defecting to the Sadrists] is that 15 soldiers were able to escape,” said Major General Qassim Atta in a briefing today in Baghdad. Atta stressed that there are over 50,000 Iraqi security forces operating in Baghdad, and some level of defections should be expected. Atta also said Maliki has “ordered [the military] to prosecute those soldiers according to the Military Punishments Law.”
Fighting in Baghdad remains intense
Some of the heaviest fighting in Iraq is occurring in the Mahdi Army-dominated Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad. The government has extended the around the clock curfew indefinitely in Baghdad until the security situation improves.
The intensity in fighting is reflected in the number of press releases issued by Multinational Forces Iraq over the past 24 hours. The US military has issued six separate press releases on fighting in Baghdad over the past 36 hours, and an additional release from Suwayrah, just south of Baghdad.
Seventy Mahdi Army and Special Groups fighters were killed in a series of clashes with US and Iraqi security forces. The fighting included engagements in and around Sadr City as well as a strike against a Mahdi Army rocket and mortar team in eastern Baghdad.
The fighting in Basrah continues as Iraqi forces attempt to dislodge the Mahdi Army from their strongholds in the city. Forty-four Mahdi Army fighters have been killed during fighting in Basrah over the past 24 hours.
McClatchy newspapers reports 39 bodies were taken to the morgue on Saturday. Twenty Mahdi Army fighters were reported killed and another 22 wounded during separate engagements with US and Iraqi forces. Another 22 Mahdi Army fighters were killed by Iraqi Special Operations Forces operating with US Special Forces advisers.
US and British warplanes have begun to conduct strikes against Mahdi Army positions inside Basrah, while the British forces have conducted counter-battery fire against Mahdi Army mortar teams. The Three British battlegroups at the Basrah airport, consisting of 650 men each, are said to be preparing to enter Basrah to support the Iraqi Army and police.
Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah appear to be back under government control
The strategic city of Nasiriyah, which sits at the crossroads of southern Iraq, appears to be back under government control after an unconfirmed report on March 28 that indicated the Mahdi Army was occupying the center of the city. “Security forces controlled the situation in the city’s districts and neighborhoods after limited confrontations with the gunmen,” said Radi al Rekabi, the media spokesman for the provincial police.
The 24 hour casualty total in Nasiriyah from March 27-28 was 30 killed, including 10 Mahdi Army fighters, four police and 16 civilians killed. Nineteen policemen, 26 civilians and 7 Mahdi fighters were wounded, while another 13 Mahdi fighters were captured.
While there has been few press reports from Diwaniyah, several hundred residents felt the security situation was good enough to hold a rally in the center of the city. More than 200 demonstrators marched in support for Maliki’s operation to uproot the Mahdi Army in Basra. Police and tribal militias were also seen patrolling the streets.
Networks disrupted in Babil, Karbala
Iraqi security forces appear to have uprooted two large Mahdi Army networks in the city of Karbala and in Babil province. Iraqi police launched a major operation in Karbala on Friday night. Twelve Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 50 were wounded, and another 30 surrendered, Major General Raed Shakir Jawdat, the operations commander for Karbala told Voices of Iraq. Police also seized 25 missile launchers, 60 rifles, five mortars and a large amount of ammunition, Raed said.
Police have been active in Babil province since the operation in Basrah kicked off on March 25. Eighty-five Mahdi Fighters have been captured and “a large number of gunmen were killed,” an unnamed source told Voices of Iraq. The Hillah Special Weapons and Tactics police teams killed 14 Special Groups fighters and wounded 20 on March 28.
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.