Iraqi and Coalition forces are conducting strikes against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed Shia terror groups in Baghdad and Basrah. As these raids are occurring, the Sadrist movement cancels a scheduled protest in Baghdad and issues conflicting reports about Muqtada al Sadr’s consultations with Shia clerics to disband the Mahdi Army.
Clashes in Baghdad
Today’s clashes in the Shia neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad began after Mahdi Army fighters attacked a police and US Army patrol and fired mortars and rockets at the International Zone in central Baghdad. Five policemen and four civilians were wounded in an improvised explosive device attack in eastern Baghdad, and one US soldier was killed in an IED attack in northeastern Baghdad. Two civilians were killed and five were wounded after mortars fell short in Sadr City. Four mortars and a Kaytusha rocket landed inside the International Zone, but no casualties were reported. Iraqi families are reported to be leaving Sadr City or stocking up on supplies, fearing renewed fighting.
Multinational Forces Iraq responded by putting up aerial hunter-killer teams over the neighborhoods where the rocket and mortars are launched. The US military killed 12 Mahdi Army fighters during three strikes against mortar and rocket teams operating from Sadr City. The first attack, from a US soldiers in a helicopter aerial weapons team, targeted a mortar team in northeast Baghdad. Two “criminals” were killed and the mortar tube was destroyed. The second attack, from a Predator, destroyed four rocket launch rails in an open field in northeast Baghdad. The third strike, also in northeast Baghdad, killed 10 “criminals” carrying rocket-propelled grenades and a mortar tube.
Clashes in Basrah
A senior Iraqi general has vowed to continue to target “criminals” operating in Basrah. On April 8, the military warned that the end of the amnesty period to turn in heavy and medium weapons has expired. “Security forces will target gunmen who did not exploit the opportunity to hand over their weapons, and they will be punished according to law,” said Major General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, the chief of the Basrah Operational Command. “Iraqi security forces have intelligence information regarding the location of weapons and gunmen in Basrah.”
As the deadline was set to expire, Iraqi and Coalition forces conducted multiple raids in the city. Over the past week the Iraqi Special Operations Forces killed 14 “terrorists and Special Group members” and captured twelve during a series of raids. The Iraqi forces also found and destroyed several roadside bombs and weapons caches. On April 8, an Iraqi Army brigade commander and the brigade’s intelligence officer were wounded in a roadside bomb attack on their convoy in northern Basrah.
Sadrist camp issues conflicting messages
As the Iraqi military and Multinational Forces Iraq apply pressure to the Mahdi Army in Basrah and Baghdad, the Sadrist movement has issued conflicting statements on disbanding the Mahdi Army and consulting with senior clerics, has canceled a scheduled protest, and threatened to end the unilateral cease-fire initiated by Sadr in August 2007.
Just one day after a Sadr aide said Sadr would seek advice from senior Shia clerics in Najaf and Qom in Iran over the government’s threat to bar the Sadrist movement from elections if it did not dissolve the Mahdi Army, another aide denied this. “Shiite Cleric Muqtada al Sadr did not think of dissolving the Mahdi Army,” Sheikh Salah al Ubaidi, a spokesman from Sadr’s office told Voices of Iraq. “We have no right to interfere in freezing or dissolving the Mahdi Army because it is an exclusive right of Muqtada al Sadr.”
On April 7, Hassan Zargani, an aide to Sadr said he was seeking advice from senior Shia clerics. “Muqtada al Sadr has ordered his offices in Najaf and Qom to form a delegation to visit [Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani] in Najaf and (other leaders) in Qom to discuss disbanding the Mahdi Army,” Zargani said. “If they order the Mahdi Army to disband, Muqtada al Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders.”
Then, in a second release, Ubaidi said Sadr did consider disbanding the Mahdi Army and consulted with senior Shia clerics on the issue, but they recommended Sadr keep his militia intact. Sadr had “recently consulted the clergy about dissolving the Mahdi Army, but the major clergies rejected this issue,” Ubaidi said at a press conference.
Ubaidi also issued a statement that Sadr’s “million-man march” in Baghdad planned for April 9 has been canceled. The government had blocked the use of vehicles for the protestors and Sadr feared for their safety, Ubaidi said. The protest was originally planned to be held in Najaf, but Sadr changed the location to Baghdad earlier this week, citing issues with travel.
Recent calls for demonstrations have resulted in poor turnouts among the Sadr supporters. Several years ago Sadr could amass hundreds of thousands of protestors, but over the last year protests have only drawn upwards of 10,000 people.
Sadr’s spokesman also threatened to end the unilateral cease-fire instituted by Sadr in August 2007 and extended in February 2008. “Until now we see no interest in ending the freeze,” Ubaidi said. “If the freeze becomes an obstacle, and other sides wrongly used the freeze against us, this will give us the opportunity to serve our society’s people by lifting the freeze.” Ubaidi claimed the Iraqi military and government was taking advantage of the cease-fire to attack the Mahdi Army.
Sadr imposed the cease-fire in August 2007 after clashes with the police and Army in Karbala. The Mahdi Army suffered a major defeat in the battle. Sadr maintains the cease-fire is still intact even after Mahdi Army forces attacked the military in Baghdad and Basrah.
For more information on the recent fighting in Basrah and Sadr City, see US, Iraqi Army clash with Mahdi Army in Sadr City and A look at Operation Knights’ Assault. For more information on the Iraqi government’s move to barring the Sadrist movement from participating in elections if it fails to disband the Mahdi Army, see Iraqi government moves to sideline Sadrists, Mahdi Army.
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