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US-Iraqi Forces Confront Mahdi Army in Baghdad

American and Iraqi troops engaged in a brief battle with the Mahdi Army on Friday, capturing a militant who appears to have been the leader of a Shia death squad, killing about 10 and wounding about 30 others. No deaths were reported from the American or regular Iraqi army side. The firefight took place in Sadr City, the stronghold of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. While the Iraqi government has given no official comment on the operation at this time, it is clear that it was authorized by Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, and Sadr is moving to have Maliki summoned before parliament as a result.

U.S. Army Maj. General Bill Caldwell described the original target of the operation this way (DefenseLink):

…”He led multiple insurgent cells in Baghdad,” the general said. “His main focus is to conduct attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. These attacks have included using improvised explosive devices and vehicle(-borne) improvised explosive devices.

His group has kidnapped, tortured and murdered Iraqi citizens, and he personally killed two Iraqi soldiers “in an attempt to improve his organization’s status with his higher leadership,” Caldwell said. Iraqi intelligence linked the man to a punishment committee that carries out vigilante judgment on perceived enemies.

“We know that this individual was also involved in the transfer of weapons from Syria into Iraq to, reportedly, facilitate … his efforts to splinter away from his current organization,” the general said…

The reaction from Sadr’s faction was strong. According to the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn (Arabic), a spokesman for Sadr called for not only the prime minister but the interior and defense ministers to be called before parliament and interrogated over the incident. While American officials emphasized the role of Iraqi troops in the operation, a separate article from the same newspaper emphasized the role of American forces while noting that Iraqi forces were involved. It quoted a member of the ruling UIA loyal to Sadr as saying that “the American administration and elements within the Iraqi government” wanted to eliminate Sadr’s role in the political process.

The taming of the Shia militias has emerged as a key challenge to Maliki’s political credibility. While the Shia have been subject to repeated terrorist attacks over the past two years, Shia militias have more actively taken matters into their own hands, forming death squads, engaging in vigilante violence and often killing unknown numbers of innocent Sunni Iraqis. Maliki has repeatedly pledged to disband the militias, yet the Badr Army and the Mahdi Army are the military wings of two major factions within the United Iraqi Alliance that Maliki represents (SCIRI and the Sadrists, respectively). The fact that the militias he has sought to disband are linked to factions within his own coalition makes this a test of political credibility as well as military resolve.

Feedback

Kirk,

Thanks for this piece of reporting and analysis. It seems the US and Iraqi forces were able to capture a mini-Zarqawi in the making.

How strong is Moqtada al-Sadr in your opinion at this juncture in Iraqi politics?

Kind regards,

Bill Rice

Sadr is strong at the grass-roots level, but if others team up on him - US-Iraqi forces taking on Mahdi, or the other Shia authorities cutting him down religiously - he would lose. He does not have that kind of power. I estimate that maybe 20-25% of the Shia support him, so they are a clear minority, but they are pretty hardcore.

Just today there was an article in al-hayat saying that in the next week he's got a million planning to march on Samarra, but I'm not sure that will actually happen. He's been penned down in the past and has always backed down. I'll be writing more about this in the days to come.

I think Mookie (my nickname for al-Sadr) is toast. The killing today of some 41 Sunnis in Baghdad in apparent retaliation for the bombing of a Shiite mosque that killed 2 has probably sealed his fate.

Even members of the government associated with the Mahdi Army militia are disgusted and outraged at the massacre.

Mookie's days are numbered.

It would be interesting to know to what extent Iran is controlling this Shiite version of Zarqawi and what/if any relation he may have with Hezbollah.