One day after Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, called for his fighters to abandon combat, the fighting in Basrah has come to a near-halt, and the Iraqi security forces are patrolling the streets. While Sadr spokesman said the Iraqi government agreed to Sadr’s terms for the cease-fire, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has said the security forces will continue operations in Basrah in the South. Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army took heavy casualties in Basrah, Nasiriyah, Babil, and Baghdad over the weekend, despite Sadr’s call for the end of fighting.
Maliki was clear that operations would continue in the South. “The armed groups who refuse al Sadr’s announcement and the pardon we offered will be targets, especially those in possession of heavy weapons,” Maliki said, referring to the 10-day amnesty period for militias to turn in heavy and medium weapons. “Security operations in Basra will continue to stop all the terrorist and criminal activities along with the organized gangs targeting people.”
The Iraqi military said it was moving in more forces into the South after admitting it was surprised by the level of resistance encountered in Basrah. “Fresh military reinforcements were sent to Basra to start clearing a number of Basra districts of wanted criminals and gunmen taking up arms,” said Brigadier General Abdel Aziz al Ubaidi, the operations chief for the Ministry of Defense. “Preparations for fresh operations have been made to conduct raids and clearance operations in Basra … [and] military operations would continue to restore security in Basra.”
The reasons behind Sadr’s call for a cessation in fighting remain unknown, but reports indicate the Mahdi Army was having a difficult time sustaining its operations and has taken heavy casualties. “Whatever gains [the Mahdi Army] has made in the field [in Basrah], they were running short of ammunition, food, and water,” an anonymous US military officer serving in South told The Long War Journal. “In short [the Mahdi Army] had no ability to sustain the effort.
TIME‘s sources in Basrah paint a similar picture. “There has been a large-scale retreat of the Mahdi Army in the oil-rich Iraqi port city because of low morale and because ammunition is low due to the closure of the Iranian border,” the magazine reported.
McClatchy Newspapers indicated a member of the Maliki’s Dawa party and the leader of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, traveled to Qom, Iran to lobby Qods Forces officers to get Sadr to halt the fighting. The trip “had two aims, lawmakers said: to ask Sadr to stand down his militia and to ask Iranian officials to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq.” The two men met with Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Qods Force, the foreign special operations branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The Mahdi Army has also taken high casualties since the fighting began on March 25. According to an unofficial tally of the open source reporting from the US and Iraqi media and Multinational Forces Iraq, 571 Mahdi Army fighters have been killed, 881 have been wounded, 490 have been captured, and 30 have surrendered over the course of seven days of fighting.
There have been few reports of clashes in the Shia districts of New Baghdad, Sadr City, and elsewhere on Monday. US and Iraqi security forces killed 48 Mahdi Army fighters during a series of clashes throughout Baghdad on Sunday. US and Iraqi security forces captured at least 22 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad. Twenty of those were captured in Sadr City. An unknown number of Mahdi Army fighters in the Iskan and Washash neighborhoods have gone against Sadr’s demands to keep their weapons and have surrendered them to the military in accordance with the amnesty offer issued by Maliki.
The Iraqi government has lifted the curfew for much of Baghdad, but Sadr City remains under curfew. “Terrorist groups are trying to exploit the current situation, and target the residential compounds there,” said Dr. Ali al Dabbagh, the spokesman for the Iraqi government.
Today, Mahdi fighters targeted the International Zone in central Baghdad with mortars and rockets. No casualties have been reported.
The official spokesperson for the Baghdad Health directorate for eastern Baghdad said 109 people have been killed and 634 wounded during the past week of fighting. “This is only in Sadr city, and according to the statistics from the two local hospitals Imam Ali and al Sadr,” Qassim Mohammed told Voices of Iraq.
The Mahdi Army has vacated the streets of Basrah and the Iraqi security forces have begun to reassert control throughout the city. Fighting in Basrah has been fierce, with the Mahdi Army putting up stiff resistance in some neighborhoods it controlled prior to Sadr’s call for the end of fighting.
Prior to the end of fighting, Iraqi security forces overran the eastern neighborhood of Tanuma and surrounded the central Timimiyah neighborhood as US and British forces pounded Mahdi Army positions, McClatchy Newspapers reported. “But the Iraqi security forces still couldn’t penetrate the vast Shiite slum of Hayaniyah or al Qibla, two Mahdi Army stronghold of Basra.” Some Mahdi Army fighters said they would continue to fight Iraqi security forces despite Sadr’s orders.
The Mahdi Army has also taken heavy casualties in Basrah. “The Iraqi security agencies killed 210 gunmen, including 42 dangerous criminals, while 600 others were wounded and 155 captured since the commencement of a military campaign in Basra,” Major General Abdul Kareem Khalaf told Voices of Iraq on Monday. “Security agencies seized a large amount of weapons including developed explosive charges, and dismantled three car bombs and 80 improvised explosive devices.”
After days of heavy fighting, the strategic city of Nasiriyah is under control of the Iraqi government, a US military officer told The Long War Journal. “Nasiriyah is approximately 90% under the control of the Iraqi security forces,” the officer said. The Iraqi forces have only received assistance from a small team of US advisers assigned to the police. The government has ordered the curfew to be eased in the southern city, while a Sadrist leader called for followers to “abide by [Sadr’s] directives” and put an end to the fighting.
The Mahdi Army took heavy casualties in the fighting for Nasiriyah, according to the provincial governor of Dhi Qhar. More than 85 fighters were killed, 200 were wounded, and 100 were arrested, said Governor Aziz Alwan, noting that the figures have not been finalized. Seven police were reported killed and 44 wounded during the fighting. Twenty-eight 28 civilians were killed and 60 wounded, many after the Mahdi Army launched mortar attacks on a civilian neighborhood.
The Dhi Qhar police have relieved a police unit of its duties, Voices of Iraq reported. “A 60-member police unit was sacked in al Fajr district, 100 km north Nasiriyah for neglecting their duty during the clashes with armed groups,” the deputy commander of the provincial police said. It is not clear if the police unit refused to fight or sided with the Mahdi Army.
For more information on 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.