The Iraqi government has committed to wresting Sadr City from the control of Shia militias, an Iraqi government spokesman and a US military spokesman said in a press briefing today in Baghdad.
“We will continue until we secure Sadr City. We will not come out, we will not give up until the people of Sadr City have a normal life,” Ali al Dabbagh, the spokesman for the government of Iraq, told AFP. “(Security forces) will do what they have to do to secure the area. I can’t tell you how many days or how many months but they will not come out until they have secured Sadr City.”
The US military has stated it will support the Iraqi government in its plan to secure Sadr City. Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, said the operations have intensified over the past week and US forces are backing the Iraqi military. “Under the direction of the Prime Minister, the Iraqi security forces have redoubled their efforts in recent days in certain parts of Baghdad, including Sadr City,” Driscoll said. “Coalition Forces continue to support the Iraqi security forces in these operations, focused on securing districts that have suffered from the abuse and neglect of criminal groups and outlaws.”
The Long War Journal has been able to identify nine US combat battalions operating in and around the Sadr City region, along with three Iraqi Army brigades and a National Police brigade. US Stryker units are engaged with Mahdi Army forces in and around Sadr City. Multinational Forces Iraq has traditionally used the Strykers as the lead assault elements during past operations. The US has also stepped up air weapons teams and unmanned Predator strikes against Mahdi Army cells operating in the open in Sadr City.
Humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Sadr City and other Shia neighborhoods have been committed in the wake of operations. “Without improved security it is difficult to provide essential services so that people can live their lives peacefully and freely,” Driscoll said. “The Iraqi Government, with the support of the Coalition, will continue to focus efforts to establish local security, and are committed to following security with the delivery of essential services, such as health, electricity, water, sewage, and trash disposal.” On April 12, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordered additional humanitarian supplies be sent to Sadr City.
The Iraqi government and US military have made an effort to disassociate the current fighting with the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army. “The government doesn’t send its forces after any political bloc,” Dabbagh said. “Anyone who is carrying a weapon illegally will be prosecuted. It is not dependent on their political persuasion, whether they be in the Sadrist trend or any other bloc.” Driscoll continued to call the targets of the raids “criminals.”
But the Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army have been clear they are conducting attacks against US and Iraqi forces. The Sadrist have been advertising the results of their operations against US forces in Sadr City. The Sadrists have also said they have received operational orders from senior leaders based out of Najaf to hold off major attacks unless US and Iraqi forces enter the heart of Sadr City.
Sadr himself has said the Mahdi Army would continue to oppose the US presence in Iraq. “You have always been my enemy,” Sadr said in a statement received by Al Alam. “And you will always be my enemy till the last drop of my blood.” Sadr said his Mahdi Army and political movement would continue to oppose the US presence in Iraq in a “way that we consider suitable.”
Background on the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi government
Mahdi Army forces rose up after the Iraqi government started the assault on Basrah on March 25 to clear the city of the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed Shia militias. Sadr called for his forces to leave the streets on March 30 just as Iraqi Army and police reinforcements began to arrive in Basrah.
US and Iraqi forces killed 173 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad alone during the six days of fighting from March 25-30. The fighting has not abated in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army-dominated neighborhoods in northern and eastern Baghdad.
Sadr and his political movement have become increasingly isolated since the fighting began in Basrah, Baghdad, and the South. The Iraqi government, with the support of the political parties, said the Sadrist political movement would not be able to participate in upcoming provincial elections if it failed to disband the Mahdi Army. On April 13, the cabinet approved legislation that prevents political parties that have militias from contesting provincial elections this year. The bill will now be sent to parliament for approval. Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the senior most Shia cleric in Iraq, said the Mahdi Army was not above the law and should be disarmed.