The US military killed a senior member of the Mahdi Army, according US and Mahdi Army sources. Arkan Hasnawi, a senior lieutenant of the Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, was killed in a guided rocket strike in Sadr City on May 3. The news of Hasnawi’s death comes as details emerge on the senior leadership of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad and the blurring of the lines between Sadr’s militia and the Special Groups.
Hasnawi was among several senior Mahdi Army leaders killed or wounded in the GLMRS strike on a Mahdi Army command and control center that was placed next to the Sadr Hospital inside Sadr City, according to a report in The Washington Post. The command and control center, called “Tahseen’s trailer” by US troops after Tahseen al Freiji, the senior Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, was used to direct Mahdi Army operations during the fighting from late March to mid May.
Arkan Hasnawi was a brigade commander in Sadr’s Mahdi Army. He fought against US and Iraqi forces in Najaf in 2003 and 2004 and has been linked to multiple attacks on US and Iraq security forces in Baghdad. He runs a network of Mahdi Army fighters in the Sha’ab neighborhood, just east of Sadr City. The US military and Iraqi security forces fought pitched battles against the Hasnawi network in February, and killed a senior lieutenant of Hasnawi and scores of fighters in the organization.
Hasnawi 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.
The Mahdi Army took significant casualties during the six weeks of fighting
Hasnawi was one of hundreds of Mahdi Army operatives killed in the fighting inside Sadr City from March 25 until the cease-fire with the Mahdi Army took place on May 10.
The US military estimates more than 700 Mahdi Army fighters were killed. “It is pretty safe to say that we have killed the equivalent of a U.S. battalion,” Colonel John Hort, the commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division told The New York Times.
A Mahdi Army commander put the number closer to 1,000 killed over the past six weeks. “A thousand martyrs, what did they die for?” the commander said.
Number compiled by The Long War Journal showed 600 Mahdi Army fighters were killed in an around Sadr City since the fighting broke out on March 25.
Mahdi Army and Special Groups distinctions are essentially meaningless
The US military has long made distinctions between the Mahdi Army and what it calls Iranian-backed Special Groups. The Long War Journal has long maintained the military made these distinctions to divide the Mahdi Army and provide the nonextremist elements a way to end the violence. The Special Groups 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.
Today’s Washington Post shows the distinctions being made by Multinational Forces Iraq are meaningless. US commanders fighting in and around Sadr City are well aware that mainstream Mahdi Army fighters, who take orders directly from Sadr and the Sadrist movement leadership in Najaf.
The US military knows that Freiji commands anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 Mahdi Army fighters inside Baghdad and takes orders directly from the Sadrist movement in Najaf.
A Mahdi Army commander named Mahdi Khaddam Alawi al Zirjawi is a good example of someone who Multinational Forces Iraq would describe as a Special Groups leader. He has received training from Iran’s Qods Force and Lebanese Hezbollah. Yet Zirjawi is considered a mainstream Mahdi Army commander. “Sadr has not repudiated him. Haji Mahdi fits in the organization,” a US Army intelligence officer told The Washington Post. “I think [Sadrist] leaders are comfortable with him.”
Another Mahdi Army commander named Baqir al Saidi also fits the profile of a Special Groups commander. Saidi is thought to be behind the kidnapping of five British contractors from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May 2007. The kidnapping has long been thought to be an Iranian-sponsored operation. Saidi has direct links to Iran and is thought to have fled there to avoid capture. The kidnappers of the British contractors have asked for the release of Qais Qazali, the leader of the Iranian-backed Qazali Network.
US and Iraqi troops may be targeting senior Mahdi leaders
Part of the agreement between the Iraqi government and the Sadrist movement is that Mahdi Army members would not be targeted unless a warrant is issued for their arrest. It is unclear if the Iraqi government has listed Freiji, Zirjawi, and the others as wanted men.
But the US and Iraqi military may be targeting them nonetheless. On May 19, the Gulf News reported British and US Special Operations Forces are accompanying the Iraqi Army into Sadr City to hunt for the five British hostages captured by Saidi. “Special personnel trained to free the hostages will accompany the Iraqi forces that are allowed to enter the Sadr City according to the agreement to look for and release the five British hostages,” the Gulf News reported.
The entry of Iraqi troops into Sadr City has been peaceful thus far, but the hunt for senior Mahdi Army and Special Groups leaders may rekindle the violence that led to the decimation of the Mahdi Army during the past six weeks.
Operations against the Mahdi Army outside Sadr City have not abated, either. Today, US forces killed 11 Mahdi Army fighters during a series of engagements in New Baghdad, which borders Sadr City to the east. The Mahdi Army fighters were killed as part of “an ongoing operation,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported. US forces also captured a Special Groups commander in the Rashid district in Baghdad.
A list of the Mahdi Army / Special Groups commanders in Sadr City (see slideshow for images)
Tahseen al Freiji: The senior Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City. Freiji was behind much of the 2006 and 2007 sectarian violence in Baghdad. Freiji commands a full brigade in Sadr City, equaling about 6,000 to 8,000 men, according to the US military. He directs mortar and rocket attacks, small-arms attacks, and IED and explosively formed penetrator attacks. He receives his orders from the Sadrist leadership in Najaf. He operated command centers next to hospitals in Sadr City.
Arkan Muhammad Ali al Hasnawi: Arkan Hasnawi was a brigade commander in Sadr’s Mahdi Army. He fought against US and Iraqi security forces in Najaf in 2003 and 2004. Hasnawi has been linked to multiple attacks on US and Iraq security forces and 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. Hasnawi was killed in a US GMLRS strike on one of Freiji’s command centers next to a hospital in Sadr City on May 3.
Mahdi Khaddam Alawi al Zirjawi: Also known as Abu Ahmad and Abu Rayna, he is considered the top Iranian-linked Mahdi Army leader in Sadr City. Zirjawi has traveled to Iran to receive training from Iran’s Qods Force and Lebanese Hezbollah. He is considered “public enemy number one in Sadr City” and still reports to Sadr.
Baqir al Saidi: The Mahdi Army commander thought to be behind the kidnapping of five British contractors from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in may 2007. Saidi is believed to have been in Iran in February and is thought to be considering going back to avoid the dragnet in Sadr City.
Jawad Kazim al Tulaybani: A rocket and mortar specialist behind an April attack on a US combat outpost in Baghdad that wounded 15 US soldiers.
Ismail Hafiz al Atawi: Also known as Abu Dure, Atawi has been behind the sectarian death squads that killed thousands of Sunnis in Baghdad. He has conducted kidnappings, murders, conducted EFP and IED attacks against US and Iraqi troops. He is also a weapons smuggler.
Muhammad Jassim al Daraji: Also known as Muhammed Cobra, Dajaji is behind EFP and IED attacks, smuggling, kidnappings, and murders. He is also a Special Groups financier.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.