Sadr City barrier ‘a magnet’ for Mahdi Army attacks


This map, from The Washington Post, was created April 24. There is no estimate available on when the barrier will be completed.

The large majority of the direct attacks by the Mahdi Army against US and Iraqi forces in Sadr City are occurring on Qods Street, where a barrier is being erected to separate the Iraqi Army and US controlled sections in the south from the northern portion of the district, the US military told The Long War Journal. The Mahdi Army is attempting to stop the building of the barrier.

US Army engineers are in the process of installing tall concrete barriers along the length of Al Qods Street, a major route that runs approximately east to west in the southern portion of Sadr City. Al Qods Street divides the Ishbilyah and Habbibiyah neighborhoods, which are controlled by the US and Iraqi military, from the northern neighborhoods. US and Iraqi forces hope to restrict the movement of weapons and supplies into the southern neighborhoods, prevent the Mahdi Army from using these areas as launch sites for mortar and rocket attacks against the International Zone, establish the writ of the government, and provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqis living in these areas in order to wrest control from the Mahdi Army.

The Mahdi Army is trying desperately to stop the barrier from being built, and is focusing its attacks on US engineers and patrols as they work to complete it. The Mahdi Army has launched complex attacks and ambushes using small-arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and roadside bombs.

“[The barrier is] a magnet,” said Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, the chief Public Affairs Officer for Multinational Division Baghdad in response to email questions on the recent fighting in Sadr City. “In that area, for the past three days we’ve seen some pretty heavy, prolonged engagements. Elsewhere, it’s mostly IEDs [improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs], IDF [indirect fire, or rockets and mortars] and harassment fire.”


Map of Baghdad neighborhoods. Click to view.

These attacks have not stopped the barrier from being built, said Stover, who visited the construction sites on Qods Street on May 1. “As the engineers were emplacing the barriers an M1A1 Abrams fired a main gun round at militants across the street,” Stover said. “We fired 5 Hellfire missiles and dropped two JDAMs from fixed wing aircraft. It got a bit hot today, but our Soldiers continued emplacing the barriers.” Two Mahdi Army fighters were confirmed killed during four engagements along Al Qods Street on May 1. More Mahdi fighters probably were killed, according to the press release, but a full count was not available. Three US soldiers were wounded in the fighting.

One of the largest battles in Sadr City occurred along Al Qods street on April 28. The Mahdi Army took advantage of the lack of US air cover due to a sand storm to launch an ambush against US forces as they patrolled the road while other soldiers were building the barrier. Mahdi Army forces launched the complex attack from the region north of Al Qods Street. The US soldiers counterattacked and killed 28 Mahdi Army fighters while taking six wounded.

The next day, The Associated Press ran an article on the engagement titled “Militiamen ambush drives back US patrol in Sadr City.” But Stover said the ambush failed to force the US soldiers to withdraw. “The barrier emplacement never stopped,” Stover told The Long War Journal.

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 465 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 will now be sent to 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. The Iraqi government has sent a delegation to Iran to ask the Iranian government to halt its support for attacks inside Iraq and to stop arming and training Shia terror groups.

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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  • Anti-Herman says:

    Are most of the current casualties in “Bagdad” the result of this operation?
    Seems that the south is quiet. Does JAM mark the vast majority of “Shiite Militia”?
    How are things up north?

  • ME says:

    If most of the heavy fighting is along Quds street it seems that worries about heavy fire and civilian casualties in a crowded urban setting are unfounded.

  • Neo says:

    “it seems that worries about heavy fire and civilian casualties in a crowded urban setting are unfounded.”

  • Batman says:

    What is the status of the militia’s ability to hit the Green Zone with rockets and mortars? Has there been any reduction in hits?
    Also, any reports from Basra? It seems to have completely vanished from the news.

  • Batman says:

    One more. Do you know anything about the status of getting moved into the new embassy?

  • mjr007 says:

    Read the comments from US Troops Kill 28 Mahdi fighters in Sadr City.
    Comments at the end from DJ:
    Posted by DJ Elliott at May 2, 2008 1:17 AM ET:
    Matthew (in Aus)
    The only significant desertions were from the green 52nd Brigade in Basrah during March. They fielded a brigade less than a month out of unit set fielding and 500 from one of the battalions broke and ran. Even the NYT mentioned that it was mostly new enlisted troops that quit.
    I have seen no other significant desertions. Even the INP 1000 man unit in Basrah only had 44 desert during the March fighting. No others reported since. The purge over the last 18 months has apparently been effective…
    The 1300 number being claimed included just under 800 local police and was also from the March fighting…
    Total desertions in Baghdad in March was under 50 in March, mostly IP and a squad of INP.
    Considering the reputation of the INP as being inflitrated by JAM, this is rediculusly low and militarily insignificant numbers. Less that 0.1 percent of the forces directly involved.
    (30,000 ISF initially involved in Basrah, since reinforced to 40-45,000. Baghdad has over 65,000 ISF…)
    Note: The training is to US standards but, they are short officers and NCOs across the board. 25 percent of the current IA was civilian a year ago…
    Posted by DJ Elliott at May 2, 2008 1:27 AM ET:
    Note: some of the US augments to Basrah have already started to return to normal duties elsewhere. Basrah is winding down…
    Except for Sadr City, JAM is mostly out of the fight. Very poor showing everywhere except Basrah, which they gave up after a week and Sadr City. Even the press mostly quit using the adjective “powerfull” irt JAM after the first week of April…

  • rmwarnick says:

    In my ever so humble opinion, the scale is wrong on the Washington Post’s map. It’s been reported elsewhere that the wall is being built about five miles (7 km) from the Green Zone. This is beyond mortar range, however the 107mm rockets have a range of 9 km.
    Of course, indirect fire can come from outside Sadr City as well as inside.

  • Baghdad fighting focuses on Sadr City Wall

    Leaving aside the Pink Floyd references that jump to mind, there has been a very intense level of fighting going on in Baghdad over the past few weeks. Coalition forces are trying to build a wall around one of the worst areas of the Sadr City slum z…

  • remoteman says:

    This is a bit more general question…I understand who the Mahdi “Army” is (aka JAM)…that’s Sadr’s lot. But who are the Bard Brigades? Are they still an active militia? I believe they are Shia, but beyond that I can’t speak to specifics. Any infor on them and their place in the spectrum of groups in Iraq would be appreciated.

  • Hamidreza says:

    rmwarnick, good observation. The red part of Quds Street is about 3.2 miles according to NIMA the US mapping agency.
    Washington Post with all their local stringers and army of Columbia U. busy bodies in DC gets such a basic thing wrong at 7.5 miles.

  • Neo says:

    Give them a little break. It’s a typo. It’s obvious the 4 on the miles scale should be a 1.

  • Hamidreza says:

    Neo, event Washington Post’s typos seem to have a bias. By making Quds Street appear 2.5 times longer than it really is, they want to send a message that this project is doomed, and that JAM is unbeatable.
    The imcorrect scale should be about 1.5 miles, which is not a standard. Thus the scale was arbitrary and pulled out of a hat to serve a bias.

  • Matthew says:

    I wanted to take my hat off to these combat engineers and their troopers for their difficult work under fire.
    A college friend of mine in the 90’s was a combat engineer and a company commander of the See-Bees. He served in South Korea and at Guantamano Bay building shelters for Haitian refugees. Long hours, little downtime and lots of travel. He loved it and learned a lot including how fortunate he is as an American…
    Hat’s off, guys…

  • Daryl says:

    Great website and great comments guys. Thanks for giving us a real clue what’s going on in Iraq. Keep up the good work!!

  • AMac says:

    Motown67 —
    Thanks for background on the Badr Brigades. Could you (DJ and Bill, too) name some sources on them and SIIC that you believe are largely reliable?

  • Norman Mann says:

    Please read “River War” by Winston Churchill and find out about the significance of the Mahdi Army. You can expect them to fight to the death and not give up easily. The current Mahdi means trouble for all.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post – From the Front: 05/03/2008 – News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  • AMac says:

    Thanks for the cites, Motown 67. Appreciated.

  • Regarding the Associated Press story titled “Militiamen ambush drives back US patrol in Sadr City” that you linked to in this article; two days ago I followed the link to the Houston Chronicle and left a brief comment explaining why the story was misleading and possibly false. The article has now been removed. (I would have preferred that they simply post a correction, but it’s better than nothing, I guess).


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