US, Iraqi troops prepare the battlefield in Sadr City


Members of the Iraqi Army secure a truck load of food as they prepare to go on a humanitarian assistance mission to deliver food and water to eastern Baghdad residents, April 5, 2008. US Air Force photo by Technical Sergeant Adrian Cadiz.

Three weeks after the Iraqi government initiated Operation Knights Assault in Basrah, US and Iraqi forces have squared off against the Mahdi Army daily in the Shia slums of Sadr City. Additional US and Iraqi forces have moved into northeastern Baghdad to prepare for a possible major engagement against the Mahdi Army.

While Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist political movement, called for his fighters to pull off the streets on March 30, the Mahdi Army has continued to attack US and Iraqi forces in Sadr City and northeastern Baghdad. The Mahdi Army began seeding the streets of Sadr City with roadside bombs just days after Sadr declared the unilateral ceasefire. “Outlaw groups have planted roadside bombs and other explosives in most of the streets of Sadr City,” the Baghdad Operational Command reported.

The Mahdi Army has attacked US and Iraqi patrols on a daily basis. The Sadrists are also advertising the results of these operations. “Witnesses and al-Sadr’s office said loudspeaker announcements broadcast from mosques offered updates about Mahdi Army attacks on US military vehicles,” CNN reported, indicating the truce called by Sadr at the end of February and again at the end of March is all but dead.

US and Iraqi forces have begun to shape the battlefield in Sadr City by cordoning off the main entry and exit points, building new check posts, instituting a vehicle ban, conducting a series patrols and humanitarian missions, carrying out targeted raids against Mahdi Army and Special Groups leaders, and providing a blanket of aerial coverage from unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters from US Army air weapons teams.

The Mahdi Army has responded violently to the efforts to establish a presence inside Sadr City. Two of the largest clashes occurred after the Mahdi Army attacked an Iraqi patrol providing food to locals and a joint US and Iraqi convoy transporting construction materials to be used in building a new checkpoint. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has ordered additional humanitarian supplies be sent to Sadr City.

The Iraqi and US military have also moved additional forces into the region around Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad. At least one Iraqi Army brigade and a National Police brigade are operating in the northeast, while two additional Army brigades are adjacent to the region. At least nine US Army combat battalions — the equivalent of about three brigades — are operating in or near Sadr City. At least three US battalions, including two Stryker battalions, have been identified operating inside Sadr City alongside Iraqi troops.

Supporters of Sadr have indicated the offensive so far is eroding the Mahdi Army’s power base. US and Iraqi troops have been operating largely on the edges of Sadr City, but the Sadrists are concerned the forces will push into the heart of the district. “Sadrist officials … had received orders from their headquarters in Najaf to avoid confrontations with Iraqi and US forces unless the Americans try to move deep into Sadr City,” The Associated Press reported.

The Sadrists are also concerned the prolonged offensive will weaken the party and the Mahdi Army. “The officials said the Sadrist leadership was concerned that the ongoing clashes were turning into a war of attrition that was weakening the movement and undermining support within its Shiite power base,” the AP reported.

Operations ongoing in Basrah

While the focus of the fighting has shifted to the capital city, Iraqi and US forces continue to target the Mahdi Army in the strategic port city of Basrah. Iraqi security forces captured 14 “criminals” during three separate raids throughout the city. “Fourteen wanted suspects were arrested, and a large number of roadside bombs, missiles, machine guns, and air defense guns were seized in the operations,” Major General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, the operations chief for the Ministry of Interior said on April 12. Iraqi troops cordoned off four neighborhoods and conducted searches.

The raids pare art of the government’s efforts to free Basrah of militia control. On April 9, Khalaf said Iraqi security forces would conduct operations to seize weapons from those who would not turn them in as part of the amnesty. “Security forces will start targeting gunmen who did not made use of the amnesty opportunity to hand in their weapons,” Khalaf said, noting that thousands of light, medium, and heavy weapons were turned in before the amnesty expired.

Background on the fighting

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. 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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • LDG says:

    @Bill Roggio
    Just an FYI: the FOXNews link in your 12.April sidebar news about the explosion in Iran has apparently been “updated” by The AP feed to now make the Iranian claim that no attack happened.

  • LDG says:

    Here’s a UPI source that still mentions the possibility of a satchel bomb:

  • Marlin says:

    I am a little surprised to learn about an al-Qaeda capture in Basra. I would have thought the Shiite militias would have eliminated them long ago.

    “A force from the 50th Brigade’s 14th Division of the Iraqi army captured the man known as Abu Huzhayfa, the leader of the al-Qaeda Organization in the area of Abu al-Khasib, Basra province, (590 km south of Baghdad) upon intelligence tips that led to his hideout,” Maj. General Muhammad al-Aaskari, the ministry’s defense advisor, told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI) by telephone.
    “Abu Huzhyfa, who is under investigative custody, confessed to having led the al-Qaeda network’s operations of killings and forced relocations of Basra residents and Iraqi security forces,” said Aaskari.
    “The army forces in Basra had information on his location and moves and they are about to capture his aides and followers,” he noted.

    Aswat al-Iraq: Al-Qaeda leader arrested in Basra

  • Marlin says:

    I wonder if these concrete barricades will wall off entire neighborhoods in Sadr City as they do in the rest of Baghdad.

    U.S. forces started placing concrete barricades on some key intersections in Sadr City, eastern Baghdad, on Sunday, local residents said, adding the city’s outlets were still closed.
    “The concrete blocks were laid on the main streets to curb missile fire at the Green Zone. This measure would continue indefinitely according to what the U.S. soldiers told inhabitants of Sadr City,” an eyewitness told Aswat al-Iraq – Voices of Iraq – (VOI).

    Aswat al-Iraq: U.S. forces erect concrete barricades in some Sadr City areas

  • Mike says:

    Isn’t Muqtada al Sadr rumored to be in Iran? I would like to think we have some sort of operations inside Iran which are tracking or trying to exploit him.
    Just my .02.

  • patrick says:

    Muqtada should have been taken out of the equation at the earliest opportunity, in whatever convenient manner. Muqtada was always going to be a political problem for an Iraqi government, a loose cannon. Now he is too strong politically to deal with.

  • mike says:

    “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. 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. ”
    “Now he is too strong politically to deal with.”
    Too Strong?? He appears to be getting “Dealt With,” in “No Uncertain Terms?”

  • Neo says:

    Thanks for the comprehensive explanation about what is going on in Sadr City, Bill. Too many news outlets were passing the fighting off as an extension of the March violence and weren’t getting around to the fact that there was sizable security initiative going on within Sadr City. I see that many news outlets are picking this up now. Today’s Washington Post has a good article that pretty much mirrors yours.
    Iraqis, U.S. Intensify Actions in Sadr City
    On a significant side note, it looks as if Sadr has chosen not to respond to his increasing political isolation but instead has hunkered down and is attempting to maintain the status quo. For the moment at least we won’t be seeing anything dramatic either in the direction of political accommodation or any sort of large scale JAM offensive. Sadr has given no response to Sistani’s remarks nor is he retaliating in any significant manor while the Iraqi government takes over increasingly large chucks of JAM controlled territory. That pretty much leaves the Iraqi government a free hand at picking them apart.
    So much for all the theories about destabilization we were getting in the newspaper over the last few weeks. I’m getting a little jealous over here. I think some of those paid pundits and so called experts should at least pay attention a little more and stop coming up with goofy theories that evaporate overnight. At least they could try coming up with a few thoughts of their own rather than endlessly repeat talking points. I just don’t understand how an amateur such as myself, sitting in my living room can consistently come up with better assessments of what is going on than most of the major newspapers. And believe me, that ain’t sayin’ much! Sorry, I am venting here a bit. Now, I can line the cats litter box for months with all the nonsense I’ve read over the last couple of weeks.

  • Neo says:

    “That may well be portrayed as a victory for Muqtada just like Basra.”
    It will be protrayed as a victory for Sadr. Count on it! But if he looses his support base in Iraq than he will disappear from view just like everything else that ceases to be an issue.
    Been hearing a lot about AQI in the news lately. Nope. It will disappear until AQI gets a big bomb in somewhere. Than it will portreyed as a major securty failure, a sign that all the effort is worthless. Than once the bombing cell gets knocked down, AQI will cease to be an issue for a while again. Until…

  • Gene says:

    Thank you for this in depth explanation of what is going on. The US Press is out in la la land feeding off of negative emotionalism and bias..You are reporting what is really going on. Clearly, Iran is making a play for Basra and the Iraqi Government and people are going along with it.

  • Dan R. says:

    Thanks for the report, Bill. It’s time to crush Sadr and the Mahdi Army once and for all.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Thanks. I’ll have anew report out shortly, the Iraqi government is committing to clearing Sadr City.
    Folks, I cannot say this enough. The comments policy is clear: no cursing, no grinding axes against politicians or political parties. If you want to do this, you’re in the wrong place. The discussions here have been great of late but DJ and I have had to delete a lot more comments dues to profanity and attacks.

  • Marlin says:

    There are several interesting assertions in this article. 1) Iranians asked al-Sadr to leave Iran, 2) al-Nuri led the group that assassinated al-Khoei five years ago and 3) al-Sadr was kept in an isolated location in Qom.

    Unidentified gunmen assassinated Riyad al-Nuri, the director of Al-Sadr’s office and his brother-in-law, near his house in Al-Najaf, only two days after Al-Sadr’s arrival in the city after having left the Iranian city of Qom “secretly” on the orders of the Iranian authorities, according to statements made by authoritative Iraqi sources in Qom and Al-Najaf to Asharq Al-Awsat. These sources said Al-Nuri led exactly five years ago an armed attack on the moderate Shiite cleric Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, the secretary general of the Imam al-Khoei Foundation, inside Al-Haydariyah shrine. al-Khoei and Haydar al-Rufayi, the official in charge of the administration of the Imam Ali shrine, were killed in the attack which took place only one day after the collapse of former regime.
    The Iraqi sources in Qom and Al-Najaf asserted that the Iranian authorities informed Al-Sadr of the need to leave their territories because of the security problems he had caused in Iraq following the armed clashes between the pro-Al-Sadr “Al-Mahdi Army” militia and Iraqi forces in Basra, Baghdad, Al-Diwaniyah, Karbala, and Al-Kut. They added that moderate officials in Iran denounced Al-Sadr’s presence in their territories saying that this was causing problems with the Iraqi Government and that “affects the course of relations between Tehran and Baghdad.”
    Iraqi sources in Al-Najaf said Al-Sadr “arrived from Qom the night before yesterday and stayed at the house of one of his aides, where his supporters were banned from reaching him, after being forced to stay for six months in an isolated house on the outskirts of the Iranian city of Qom.”

    Asharq Alawsaat: Iran Ordered Muqtada al-Sadr to Return to Al-Najaf – Iraqi Sources

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/14/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.


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