Iraqi Army presses into Sadr City


Iraqi soldiers man a checkpoint in Sadr City. Photo by Reuters.

The Iraqi security forces have entered the northern regions of Sadr City on Tuesday. Dubbed Operation Salam, or Peace, thousands of Iraqi troops moved into the Mahdi Army stronghold just before dawn and took up positions at strategic points throughout Sadr City.

“Operation Salam is going in accordance with well-planned and organized steps,” Major General Qassem Atta told Voices of Iraq. Iraqi troops are tasked with securing the neighborhoods, arresting wanted individuals, and searching and seizing unlicensed weapons.

“The forces aim at maintaining security and stability to implement the remaining three stages of the ceasefire agreement with the Sadrist movement,” Atta said. The agreement states there will be no use of “illegal weapons,” the Iraqi Army would dismantle roadside bombs set up by the Mahdi Army, and security forces can arrest wanted individuals if a warrant has been issued. Security forces may also target anyone attacking them. The Iraqi Army has found and destroyed more than 100 roadside bombs since the operation began.

The Iraqi Army said three of its brigades were involved in the operation, and moved into Sadr City in seven convoys. Six of the nine available battalions from the three brigades were pushed into Sadr City. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Iraqi troops are now operating inside Sadr City.

The US military, including the advisory teams, has not entered the northern areas of Sadr City. “No U.S. troops have gone beyond Quds Street,” said Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, the chief Public Affairs Officer for Multinational Division Baghdad, in an e-mail to The Long War Journal. “This is an Iraqi planned, led, and executed operation. US soldiers are providing advice, intelligence and enabling support.”

The Iraqi soldiers massed behind the walled segment of southern Sadr City, where US and Iraqi troops established a security zone. US engineers opened sections of the concrete barrier late at night, and Iraqi troops poured through the openings at 5 AM local time, The New York Times reported.

The Army met little resistance in moving through Sadr City. “By midday in Baghdad, Iraqi forces had driven to a key thoroughfare that bisects Sadr City and taken up positions near hospitals, police stations and the political headquarters” of the Sadrist movement, The New York Times reported.

Raids against the Mahdi Army continue outside Sadr City

As Sadr City remains relatively quiet, Iraqi and Coalition forces continue to target Mahdi Army forces outside the eastern district and in the South.

On May 17, US soldiers killed a Mahdi Army fighter as he prepared to attack in New Baghdad. On Monday, Iraqi troops raided a mosque in the Sha’ab neighborhood in northern Baghdad. Iraqi troops arrested five Mahdi Army fighters and seized a large weapons cache, which included “Twenty-four explosive devices, six RPG-7 launchers, 20 missiles, 50 hand grenades and 5,000 BKC machine-guns were seized.” Eight of the Iranian-manufactured explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, were found among the roadside bombs.

The Sha’ab neighborhood hosts a dangerous Mahdi Army group led by Arkan Hasnawi. A brigade commander in the Mahdi Army, Hasnawi has been linked to multiple attacks on US and Iraq security forces. He was behind the kidnapping of Shia and Sunni tribal leaders in Diyala province in October 2007. His network was also behind the kidnapping of six Sons of Iraq from a checkpoint in Baghdad’s Ur neighborhood on Feb. 7. US and Iraqi forces fought multiple battles with the Hasnawi network in February and captured a key lieutenant during a raid.

Further south of Baghdad, Iraqi troops continue to round up Mahdi Army suspects. An “armed cell” leader and three cell members were arrested in Karbala on May 19. Iraqi security forces arrested 50 “wanted persons” in Maysan province, a Sadrist stronghold in the South. In Basrah, the Iraqi Army arrested 22 “wanted men” during raids in the Madina and Ali districts.

Background on the recent fighting in with the Mahdi Army

Mahdi Army forces openly took up arms against the government 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.

In Baghdad alone, US and Iraqi forces killed 173 Mahdi Army fighters during the six days of fighting from March 25 up until Sadr declared a cease-fire. The fighting has not abated in Sadr City and other Mahdi Army-dominated neighborhoods in northern and eastern Baghdad. A total of 520 Mahdi Army fighters have been confirmed killed in and around Sadr City since March 25.

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 is now in parliament for approval. Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, said the Mahdi Army was not above the law and should be disarmed. Sadr has refused to disband the Mahdi Army.

On April 20, Sadr threatened to conduct a third uprising, but later backed down from his threat, claiming it was directed only at US forces. The Maliki government has stood firm and said operations would continue until the Mahdi Army and other militias disarm and disband. On May 1, the Iraqi government sent a delegation to confront Iran on its involvement with the insurgency, but Sadr, who is currently in Iran, refused to meet with the Iraqi government representatives. On May 10, the Sadrist movement signed an agreement with the Iraqi government that would allow the Army and police to move into Sadr City unopposed.

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

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  • C. Jordan says:

    GO! GO! GO!
    Long Live a FREE Iraq!
    This is wonderful to see.

  • Richard1 says:

    I suspect we have reached that tipping point in Iraq where things will start happening very quickly now.

  • Alex says:

    IMO the tipping point was reached with the Basra raid.
    Is the BKC machine gun also known as the M86? That is a huge haul then. I’d like to get word though on how mortars or rockets have been confiscated.

  • Richard1 says:

    5,000 BKC machine-guns? They must mean 5,000 BKC machine-gun rounds.

  • Neo says:

    Just my opinion here. I think the tipping point for JAM was last March. It came during the Basra campaign on about the 4th or 5th day when the Iraqi Army started bringing in extra troops and JAM couldn’t withstand the sustained pressure. They tried to make headway against the Iraqi Army elsewhere across the south only to get decimated. Although most people missed the significance at the time the “cease fire”

  • Matthew says:

    I like the suggestion Neo made.
    The excursion in Sadr City is an EXCELLENT long-term exercise for the Iraqi Army and Police to learn and practice Counterinsurgency operations combined with humanitarian support. They are indeed building upon the success of Basra.

  • Richard1 says:

    “The operation will continue tomorrow. We expect to be controlling all parts of Sadr City by tomorrow morning,”

  • Neo says:

    I might add,
    I like Mr. Maliki’s “end game”

  • Alex says:

    Yeah you’re probably right…5,000 actual medium machine guns seems quite excessive

  • Neo says:

    These developments are sinking in a lot more slowly than I could have ever imagined. Nobody can blame the New York Times, they have lead with the story most of the morning and it has been a big day for news. Most other newspapers have put it near the head of their World News but haven’t given it much front page emphasis. The electronic media isn’t giving it much of anything so far.
    The security operation will be going on for some time, so there is time for them to notice. Maybe we need something to go seriously wrong? Here Kitty, Kitty, Some red meat!
    Ok, Now I am being overly cynical.
     no I’m not!

  • Bill Roggio says:

    I’ve had to delete several comments from this thread. Please re-read the comments policy. This is not the place to score political points.

  • Has anyone seen any reporting about Maliki’s political capital? Are the recent string of successes in Basra, Sadr City, Hillah, etc, strengthening his hand? I’d imagine that these significant actions against Shia militiamen gave him credibility among the Sunnis, showing that he is not leading in a sectarian fashion, that he is an equal opportunity law enforcer. And the COR – has he gained any political capital / credibility among them? My hunch is a strong yes, but I have seen nothing reported about it (and that is not a complaint about the coverage on the LWJ – this is great).

  • Daryl says:

    nice article in the Wall Street Journal today by the President of the Kurdish Regional Government. I think you have to be a subscriber to get to the link above. Extremely postive message on the progress being made toward political reconciliation . Here’s his opening
    “While the media offers mostly images of violence, and many Americans have grown weary of the war in Iraq, I bring hopeful news to Washington this week as I meet with the administration and members of Congress.”

  • ECH says:

    My great worry is that success against the Sadrists will enbolden Hakim and his son to try to break away the south.
    We need to make sure the focus says on the military arm of the Sadrists and special groups and let their political arm be so that after the next two elections in Iraq the power in the Shia community stays split so neither the SIIC nor the Sadrists can institute their agenda in Iraq.

  • Freedom Now says:

    I dont think that Maliki wanted to tip off the Sadrists of the impending operation in Basra and thats why he was so secretive.
    It probably cost him more than he gained because he should have had better coordination with the Coalition, but thats spilt beans now.
    The Sadrists are not a very good counterbalance in Iraqi politics. Its sort of like keeping the Nazis around to counterbalance the Socialists in 1930s Germany. Not a good idea.

  • colawman says:

    It seems that your assessment is the one that refuses to acknowledge facts. To say that the battle for Basrah has resulted in a stalemate is completely without foundation. Your “lull” strategy also belies the facts. I do not have the time to address each of your assertions, but then again there is no need as most people can see they are riddles with hyperbole and unsubstantiated. Perhaps you have purposely ignored one of the bell weathers:
    US Casualties 1st quarter for each year:
    2008 180
    2007 498
    2006 340
    2005 370
    2004 340
    2008 has certainly been a LULL!

  • Gigantor says:

    I don’t think there is much “blustering” going on here. I respect your analysis, but as for the Basra operation, it showed that the IA could deploy a large force effectively through the use of air/ground assets and actually take the fight to the enemy. That was a victory all in itself. As for the Madhi Army ‘outifghting’ the IA, how so? Who sued for peace in Basra? Who wanted a cease-fire? Who said he would stand down his militia if certain clerics gave the word? And who is STILL hiding in Iran? Momentum is def. on the IA and Coalitions side right and they are most certainly taking adv. of it with ops in Sadr City, Bagdahd, Mosul and the onging clearing in Basra, which is under govt. control.
    As for JAM, Special Groups etc, they stood up and fought, and took a decent pounding. They lost 2 cities, many fighters, and lots of equipment. These losses will continue as well.
    There is still quite a long way to go, that is for certain, but the situation in Iraq is far better (I know it’s all relative) than it has been in the past. A much clearer picture will be presented after the Provincial Elections in October.

  • Neo says:

    For your specific complaint:
    “I might have missed something but I don’t actually recall hearing about the Iraqi Army decimating anyone in Basra. It sounded like even the most optimistic assessment that could be made would be that of a stalemate.”

  • Daryl says:

    I agree. When Iraqi Army units completely occupy the streets of Sadr City and Base, setting up checkpoints, taking over hospitals, searching houses and arresting suspects at will, that pretty much constitutes a complete defeat for the Mahdi Army. They are finished. That doesn’t mean all the problems in Iraq are over, but the main two recent developments – the Sunni revolt against Al Queda and now the destruction of the Mahdi Army are extremely positive developments. If sectarian killings and car bombings can be reduced to a much lower level – and of course US casualties along with it, then it’s possible for political reconciliation in Iraq proceed and for political opposition at home to be undermined.

  • SoldiersDad says:

    Let’s review…
    There haven’t been any insurgent groups dumb enough to stand and fight against a US Division sized clearing operation since the fall of 2004. There haven’t been insurgent groups dumb enough to stand and fight against a US Brigade sized clearing ops since the fall of 2007.
    We are now in the Spring of 2008. The American public is
    justifiably impatient with the progress of the Iraqi’s…after all…its not our country.
    So prime minister Malliki copies the US Surge model and sends an extra brigade to do a clearing op in Baghdad…the US has had one Brigade dedicated to clearing for most of the last year.
    He misjudged a bit…there are insurgents dumb enough to stand and fight against an Iraqi brigade.
    No problem…their isn’t anyone left in AlAbnar dumb enough to stand and fight against an Iraqi plattoon..never mind a Division. So he sends the 1st Iraqi Army division to Basra…surprise…surprise…there aren’t many insurgents in Basra left that want to stand and fight an entire Iraqi Army Division…ceasefire!!!…ceasefire…we don’t want to fight.
    A couple of weeks ago Malliki again sends an Iraqi Army Brigade into Sadr City to see if any were dumb enough to stand and fight against a single Iraqi Army brigade….sure enough there was.
    So give them 10 days to turn in their weapons while he once again masses an entire Division to go in and do a clearing operation. Surprise…Surprise…ceasefire…ceasefire.
    The “enemy” gets a vote. At this point his vote appears to be that he’s not interested in standing and fighting against an entire Iraqi Army Division.
    As the Iraqi Army can stand up 3 divisions a year…waiting until next spring to take them on doesn’t
    seem to be such a bright idea either.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/21/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  • Lgude says:

    Perhaps my comment from yesterday didn’t get through or was too political, but I think this relatively peaceful occupation of Sadr city is extremely important. I think Maliki has succeeded in dramatically speeding up the Baghdad clock at a time when the Washington clock may be running out. My gut tells me that the front runner – Obama – wont throw away the progress in Iraq despite his emphasizing his opposition to the war from the beginning, but if I were Maliki I would be minimizing my vulnerability to any change of policy in Washington by moving quickly to establish government control as widely as possible. The exclusive use of Iraqi troops nicely undercuts Sadr’s dubious claim that he would only be going on a new offensive against US troops, and the use of arrest warrants undercuts the rule of the gun by beginning to temper government power with the rule of law. This development appears to me like the Iraqi government is beginning to learn how to effectively govern. If it can create enough civil order to increase oil production it will be able to insulate itself from a funding cut off similar to what crippled the South Vietnamese government in the seventies. The Iraqi Government and army is still going to need a lot of air, logistics, and training support from what I read here and elsewhere. Hopefully the Iraqis will be able to afford it.

  • Brian,
    You want to discuss everything from tactics to strategy to energy policy with hand-waving generalities in the span of two comments. Maybe someone else will have the energy to humor you. Regarding your suggestion that I need to get out from behind my computer and talk to more vets, thanks for the advice. I thought 3 deployments to Iraq and knowing a couple hundred Soldiers who currently serve was sufficient, but I will reconsider.

    To anyone,
    Do we know if the IA will be able to sustain their presence in Sadr City in the numbers that they currently have. I only ask because of an earlier comment that suggested Sadr’s militia is defeated. When your militia is a bunch of military-aged males who have access to a weapon and are willing to be led by whichever thug in their neighborhood is the designated cell leader, then it seems that defeating a militia can be a temporary affair, as it can reconstitute fairly quickly, albeit with far less skilled operatives, unless there is a significant government presence.

  • anand says:

    The war in Iraq is not about oil prices. I think that technological innovation will make oil increasingly obsolete over the coming decades.
    “energy security” = “oil price volatility” shouldn’t be a part of the discussion over Iraq.
    I would tell you however, that most Iraqis want increased oil production because that would result in greater oil revenues and social services by the state (including better security provided by a better quality ISF.)
    Brian, according to you, what sunni arab country near Iraq has complete control over its internal security situation.
    For that matter, South Africa suffers 1500 violent deaths a day . . . and New York use to have 10-12 violent deaths a day in the 1980s.
    Iraq already has better security provided by the ISF than both of the above examples.
    Brian, have you had the opportunity to observe the IA recently? Many divisions are quite high quality.

  • b says:

    @Brian: “Our troops also deserve better than to have the number of their fallen comrades stacked up on the scale of success.”
    And yet, this is what people on your side of the war debate have been doing since day one. Is it only ok to use headline casualty figures to argue that we should pull out?
    “The initial goal of this war was to disarm Saddam’s regime viewed as a rouge state.”
    I dispute your characterization of “the” goal of the war. Like others have stated, I don’t have the energy or the inclination to take the time to explain this subject to you. But please realize you are setting up a strawman with that argument.
    “Also, unless America keeps a substantial number of troops in Iraq…”
    Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Phillipines, Panama, Kosovo, etc. As long as they are not being killed or shot at and the force size can be reconciled with military readiness requirements, there is no reason why we need to withdraw in a hurried fashion. No, we should stay–decades if necessary–and consolidate our gains and the gains of the free Iraqi people.

  • SoldiersDad says:

    Joe Sixpack,
    “Do we know if the IA will be able to sustain their presence in Sadr City in the numbers that they currently have. ”
    Anyone who has followed the growth of the Iraqi Army could see that substantial numbers of Iraqi troops were held “In Reserve” for the Sadr City Operation. Not only can they sustain the levels of troops in Sadr City, they can reinforce if necessary.

  • Matt Sanchez says:


    Kids in Ramadi following around American Marines. CNN is reporting that teenage boys were forced to learn how to become suicide bombers in the Northern city of Mosul. All six boys were taught how to carry out suicide attacks with

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