Mahdi Army taking significant casualties in Baghdad, South


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.

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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  • Marlin says:

    Michael Clarke reports that the British had even less advance warning of the Basra operation than the Americans did.

    General Mohan, commander of the Iraqi 14th Division in Basra – the unit at the heart of the fighting – may have been planning an operation like this for later in the year but Maliki summarily arrived in Basra, swept Mohan aside and started it immediately. General David Petraeus, the US commander, had merely hours’ notice of the operation, the British none at all. Far from acting under British advice, Maliki has done his best to ignore UK commanders and is working with the US corps commander at his side.
    The British are delivering supplies and ammunition to Iraqi fighting units on the outskirts of the city, operating medical facilities for them and helping to provide air cover. They are struggling to avoid the consequences of having been largely swept aside by a headstrong Iraqi prime minister taking a huge personal gamble.

    Sunday Times: Britain does the worrying as the battle for Basra unfolds

  • Michael says:

    Welcome home Bill!
    Excellent wrap up on all areas. I’d been watching the upward trend on MNF-I as well.
    It appears to me, they were quite ready to go with very good actionable intelligence not just in Basra, but in all regions, ready.
    They may have planned on going later, but then had to move earlier? Curious what your thoughts are. Whatever the case, it appears training has worked much better, intel collection is good, plus the political will is there to end this now.

  • Neo says:

    I have seen a lot of reports in the news about Iraqi desertions that either have their information muddled or purposely misconstrued. The only incidence of large scale desertions is among poorly trained Basra police whose loyalty was always in question. This should of course not be confused with Iraqi army units in Basra who have not reported desertions in significant numbers. Lower level officers in the IA have off the record complained of unit desertions, questionable loyalty, and limited usefulness of accompanying local police units. (NOT IA units) I have seen the figure of 500 police desertions for Basra which seems to be just a rough figure someone threw out there. The 500 number is unconfirmed number that has some plausibility.
    Baghdad is a different case. Sadr’s people displayed what they said were 40 people from security units that had come over to their side. That’s not a large number, and is at least of same order of magnitude as the number of 15 officially reported by security forces. Nowhere are there actual reports of larger scale desertions. Unfortunately, much of the rampant speculation around the issue either implies large scale desertions within Baghdad or conflates the number of desertions in Baghdad, IA units, and Basra police units, only one of which is true.
    Conflating events and numbers with each other is an underhanded way to misrepresent without being accused of changing facts. Journalists regularly do it, academics too. Don’t even get me started about certain administration figures.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Just to put a perspective on the Sadr City desertions, here is what ISF is assigned to the Sadr City Security District, only one of 10 Baghdad Districts:
    – 8th INP Bde (2200-2500 pers)
    – 44th IA Bde (2500-3000 pers)
    – Then there is the local IP and FPS which are more than the IA/INP combined…
    Even the higher claim of 40 deserters is less than a percentage point of the ISF assigned to that district alone. Then there is the rest of Baghdad’s security districts…
    The reported claims by JAM do not support the large scale desertions claimed by the press and JAM will be inflating their claims…

  • Neo says:

    “The reported claims by JAM do not support the large scale desertions claimed by the press and JAM will be inflating their claims…”

  • KnightHawk says:

    Bill and all at TLWJ just wanted to say thanks again for keeping us all up to date in informed on what going on.

  • Rubin says:

    Encouraging to see PM Maliki taking a stand in Basra…literally.
    If he actually finishes the job sic killing the militias, gangs, and turncoats, and reduces Tater and his Tots to dinner scraps Iraq will be a Winner!! [and I’ll be gratefully amazed.]
    The distortions about desertions I attribute to the first precepts of MSM Orthodoxy. sic; Gloom, Doom and always twist the facts while praying for America’s defeat.
    With just a few others like you Bill R. You stepped into History and into Breech to fill the Job that our entire MSM failed miserably to do.
    Thank You and God Bless You and Yours …
    Please take care , you are irreplaceable.

  • the nailgun says:

    Given how much of a surpise this operation appears to have been to the US and Brits and coming not long after a visit from Ahaminejad I can’t help but wonder if AL Maliki got the nod the Iranians have cut Al Sadr loose???
    AL Maliki has completely nailed his colours to the mast here both by keeping it close to a 100% ISF operation and personally supervising in Basra so he must be supremely confident of winning. To my mind 2 things would contribute to that confidence 1) the ISF have quite simply now got the skills and numbers to do the job and 2) there is not going to be any serious blowback out of Teheran or support for JAM proper.
    Just a theory and could be hopelessy wrong, maybe it is purely the strength of the IA that gives him the confidence but the closeness of the Iranian Pres visit gets me wondering.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Alternatively, the VP and Sen McCain’s visits could have emphasised the need to settle this well before the elections. Avoiding a Tet sydrome in Iraqi and US elections…
    From what I can put together, BaOC planned to do this after they got the rest of the 14th Div formed (end-July). The PM chose to do do it now and borrowed elements from elsewhere in the country to make up the force deficit…

  • Marlin says:

    Here’s a Saturday update on the offensive in Nasariyah and the first indication that I’ve seen that it also extends into Baquba.

    Clashes between militias and Iraqi government security forces continued elsewhere. There was intense fighting for a second day north of Basra in Dhi Qar Province and its capital, Nasiriya, where officials said the toll on Saturday was 28 killed and 59 wounded. There were running battles on a main bridge in Nasiriya, an Iraqi police officer said, and gunmen controlled the town of Shatra, about 20 miles north.
    There also appeared to be a major operation under way around Baquba, north of Baghdad, where government tanks blocked streets in at least three neighborhoods as troops sought out members of the Mahdi Army.

    New York Times: Shiite Militias Cling to Swaths of Basra and Stage Raids

  • KnightHawk says:

    Hmm, wondering if the thinking there isn’t so much about elections but rather too do it now while there is more bandwidth for help if needed from MNF forces then there may be say come the fall.
    Who knows, just glad to see an attempt at a cleanup is underway.

  • the nailgun says:

    I see over at cnn that Sadr has thrown in the towel calling on JAM to go home.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Also a probable factor. In July:
    – the UK was sched to drop to 2500
    – the Georgian Brigade was to leave Kut
    – the Polish Brigade was to leave Diwaniyah
    – and US was to be down to 15 Combat Brigades
    (currently 17)
    The politics and the military strength on the ground did tend to make this optimal time to act…

  • Marlin says:

    I offer the following anecdote not as proof of widespread Iraqi Army desertions in Basra, but to point out that the deserters were not winning many sympathizers with those who remained behind.

    “Some of our soldiers have refused to fight the Mehdi Army and have instead handed their vehicles and weapons to them,” he said, looking disgusted. “Now we are having to check every Iraqi army patrol that passes through to ensure they are genuine soldiers.”
    The scene on the other side of the battlefield proved his suspicions right. Dug in behind a wall was a squad of Mehdi Army fighters, the Shia militiamen Lt Abbas and 15,000 other Iraqi soldiers have been sent to quell.
    Sure enough, one was driving an American-issue Iraqi army Humvee – one of seven, said the squad’s leader, Haji Ali, handed to them by sympathisers within the Iraqi army.

    Telegraph: Iraqi army forces defect to Moqtada al-Sadr

  • jordan says:

    Some are reporting that Sadr has ordered his fighters to stand down, and that he’s issued a nine point peace plan. Has the fighting stopped? Also showed Shiite militia jumping up and down with rifles, happy. What does this mean?

  • Marlin says:

    Sabrina Tavernise and Solomon Moore offer some more details on how al-Maliki came to lead the Basra offensive.

    Still, few observers in Iraq seem to believe that Mr. Maliki intended such a bold stroke. Rather, many say the notoriously cautious politician stumbled into a major assault.
    “Maliki miscalculated,”

  • J.Gocht says:

    Al-Maliki’s quick decision to accept al-Sadr’s offer; gives one pause to wonder whose arse was getting severely pummeled? Honoring al-Sadr’s terms must have been painful indeed.
    ” Maliki called the Shia terrorists “worse than al Qaeda” and vowed to remain in Basrah until the operation is completed.”

  • KaneKaizer says:

    We sure don’t remember it, but some of us know quite a lot about it.
    The fact is, if we smashed the Mahdi Army in some great Tet-like battle, there’s no “NVA” to fill the void unless Iran attacked for some reason. The Islamic State of Iraq is already down to less than a third of its operational capacity and probably much less now because that figure was released back in November, before Operation Phantom Phoenix began.
    Without the Mahdi Army, we’d still have to worry about our Sunni insurgent allies turning on us, but I would be more concerned about Afghanistan/Pakistan and the Taliban by then.

  • Neo says:

    J.Gocht – No one has implied that current JAM casualties cannot be recouped in the medium and long term. The argument made is about the sustainability of current operations. The argument is about this short term battle not the entire war. JAM cannot sustain this level of casualties for more than a few days without becoming ineffective.
    You’re presenting a straw man argument against a point no one is trying to make. Many more factors go into whether JAM can sustain it’s efforts long term, most of those factors are political. Long term casualty rates would be one factor, but since no one has brought up long term casualty rates your mocking argument is beating on the Straw Man.

  • Al-Sadr Tells Mahdi Army To Stand Down

    But what’s the most flashy headline you read over the weekend? Iraqi army forces defect to al-Sadr. Which ledes us to EM over at HA who says the biggest loser in all of this is the ‘pro-defeat-o-crat’ MSM; so eager for an exploding sectarian violence…


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