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.