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.