Soldiers from Troop B, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, maneuver down a path while receiving heavy indirect fire and rocket-propelled grenade fire just on the outskirts of Shula May 16. (US Army photo / Sergeant James Hunter)
Iraqi Special Operations Forces have captured a senior Mahdi Army Special Groups leader in the Shula neighborhood in the Ghazaliyah district in northwestern Baghdad. The Shula neighborhood has been a target of US and Iraqi forces over the past several weeks as the fighting in Sadr City has largely subsided.
The Iraqi Special Operations Forces captured what Multinational Forces Iraq called a “mid-level Special Groups leader” along with two associates during a raid on May 25. The commander, who is “affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps,” is thought to lead a 300-man battalion of Mahdi Army fighters. He has been behind the kidnapping and murdering of Iraqis and works for the Ministry of Interior.
In related raid, Coalition forces detained a Mahdi Army Special Groups leader in Suwayrah. The operative is described by Multinational Forces Iraq as an “explosively formed penetrator expert believed to be responsible for coordinating and directing attacks on Coalition forces in the Wasit province.” The leader sent his fighters to Iran “for paramilitary training.”
The US military has long made distinctions between the Mahdi Army and what it calls Iranian-backed Special Groups. The military makes these distinctions as part of an effort to divide the Mahdi Army and provide the nonextremist elements a way to end the violence. The Special Groups, which are Iranian trained, armed and funded, are essentially a subset of the Mahdi Army.
The “rogue element” and “Special Groups” narrative has provided Mahdi Army fighters and commanders a path to lay down their arms and join the political process. Multinational Forces Iraq has refused to categorize the entire Mahdi Army as “irreconcilable elements” to give Mahdi Army fighters this out.
Iraqi and US forces have made a push into the Shula neighborhood (number 61 on the map) over the past several weeks. US forces engaged in heavy fighting during a search operation in Shula on May 16.
“We encountered perimeter defenses in Shula,” said Captain Robert Gillespie, the commander of Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. “We were able to fight through those and take the objective of what we were looking for and conducted our mission safely until we were finished and moved back.” The soldiers were hit with IEDs, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and machinegun fire before clearing the area. Two Mahdi Army fighters were confirmed killed, but US troops believe they killed up to nine.
The 22nd Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division took control of the headquarters of the Office of the Martyr Sadr in the Shula neighborhood in the second week of May and have established a presence in the neighborhood. The Sadrist office was occupied by Iraqi troops because it was being used by “Special Group extremists.” Iraqi troops clashed with the Mahdi Army as it took over the Sadrist office, and the Sadrists claim 30 of its members were detained in the operation.
Iraqi soldiers also detained 35 hospital workers in the Mohammed Bakr Hakim hospital in the Shula neighborhood on May 6. The hospital workers are suspected of treating wounded Mahdi Army fighters and providing assistance to the militia.
The hospitals in Sadr City are known to be infiltrated with Mahdi Army and Sadrist bloc members who continue to use the hospitals for criminal activities. The Mahdi Army used hospitals as staging areas for sectarian attacks and weapons storage depots. The US military killed Arkan Hasnawi, a senior Mahdi Army Special Groups commander, during a guided rocket strike on a Mahdi Army command and control center situated next to the Sadr Hospital in Sadr City on May 3.
The US military has said the fighting has increased in western Baghdad since Iraqi forces have moved into Sadr City and the attacks there have died down. Iraqi and US forces have pursued Mahdi Army forces into western Baghdad as well as in the eastern district of New Baghdad.
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