The Iraqi Army, backed by Coalition advisers and airpower, has launched an assault on the Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhood of Hayaniyah in the port city of Basrah, sparking heavy fighting. Multinational Forces Iraq described the action as “a new phase of operations” as part of the overall operation, called Knights’ Charge, which was launched on March 25.
The fighting in Basrah is said to be intense. The assault began at 6 AM local time when “British artillery and US aircraft released ordnance against known criminal rocket and mortar sites west of Hayaniyah,” the Multinational Forces Iraq press release stated.
“There were violent clashes with gunmen there,” Captain Chris Ford, a British military spokesman in Basrah, told The Los Angeles Times. An Iraqi witness said Coalition airstrikes blunted a Mahdi Army attack and allowed Iraqi forces to take control of the main streets in Hayaniyah.
Iraqi troops are now said to be in control of the neighborhood. “Our troops deployed in all the parts of the (Hayaniyah) district and controlled it without much resistance,” Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior told Reuters. “Now we are working on house-to-house checking. We have made many arrests.”
Elements from at least two Iraqi Army divisions are involved in the Hayaniyah operation. The newly formed 14th Division is operating in conjunction with the 1st Division, one of the most seasoned divisions in the Iraqi Army. “This remains an Iraqi led, planned and executed mission,” said Major Tom Holloway, the British Army’s spokesman in southern Iraq. A brigade from the 1st Division was moved into Basrah to support the operation after the military met tougher than expected opposition at the onset of Knights’ Charge. The 1st Division is based out of Anbar province and has seen action in Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad, Baqubah, Mosul, and elsewhere.
Hayaniyah was one of three Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhoods that have been surrounded by the Iraqi Army since earlier this week. Iraqi forces also have surrounded the Khamsamile and Garma neighborhoods in an effort to isolate the Mahdi Army and control movement into and out of the areas. Iraqi troops pulled control of Taymiyyah and Qiblah away from the Mahdi Army over the past several weeks.
Ongoing pressure in Basrah
Today’s operation is the latest in a series of actions designed to wrest Basrah from the grip of the Mahdi Army. On April 18, the Iraqi security forces detained 35 “wanted men” in Basrah, Al Faw, and Al Qornah. One of those captured included an “accused suspected of being involved in the attempt on the life of one of top Shiite Cleric Ali al Sistani’s representatives in Basrah.” The Sistani representative was seriously wounded in the assassination attempt.
Also on April 18, Iraqi troops surrounded an office of the Sadrist movement in the heart of the city. The building complex is owned by the Iraqi Olympic Committee and was occupied by other political parties, all of whom left after receiving notice from the government. The Iraqi military has been ordered to eject political parties from state-owned buildings, but the Sadrist party is refusing to leave. A 48-hour deadline has been issued for the Sadrists to leave. The Sadrists have said they have begun to leave the premises and will be out of the buildings today.
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. Sadr later admitted he ordered his followers within the Army and police to abandon their posts and join the fighting against the government.
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 with militias from contesting provincial elections this year. The bill will now be sent to parliament for approval. Grand Ayatollah Sistani said the Mahdi Army was not above the law and should be disarmed.