On Monday, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) engaged in their first gunbattle with the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr without assistance on the ground from American troops. It took place in Diwaniya, which is located in Al-Qadisiya Province in south-central Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been struggling to contain violence by the Shi’a militia which has made otherwise moderating Sunni insurgent groups hesitant about laying down their weapons. Over the past several weeks there have been a number of joint U.S.-Iraqi operations against Shi’a “death squads” which have been terrorizing Baghdad’s Sunni population. After the fight, local authorities reached a ceasefire agreement with the local Sadrist office, called Martyr Sadr, but Defense Minister Abd al-Qader al-‘Abaydi abrogated the terms of the ceasefire, which were a compromise with Sadr, and insisted on enforcing government control of the city. He also ordered an investigation into the beheading of some Iraqi soldiers.
This most recent clash appears to have ignited after Iraqi forces arrested a member of the Mahdi Army following a roadside bomb that killed two Iraqi soldiers. The gunbattle began overnight and lasted for hours. At one point, having run out of ammunition, 13 Iraqi soldiers were taken captive and then beheaded in public. ISF reinforcements arrived too late to help the original squad, but they were able to take control of most parts of the city. Fatalities included 20 ISF soldiers and 50 Sadrist militants. (Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post)
Initial reports were conflicting as to which side won the gunbattle. Al-Hayat quoted a provincial official as saying that with the arrival of reinforcements by the end of the day the ISF had control of all areas of the city except two neighborhoods (Al-Nahda and Al-Wahda). The Washington Post, by contrast, reported that the Mahdi Army had won, and that they were in control of the city, although it appears that their report relied on anecdoctal accounts. The New York Times, on the other hand, described the fighting but did not indicate that one side or the other had won.
The Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn, by contrast, gave a detailed account of the ceasefire agreement which made clear that the ISF had the upper hand, but which also suggested compromise with the Sadrists. The agreement stipulated that the Mahdi Army would give up control of the city to Iraqi police but that the Iraqi army would not be allowed to enter the city for three days. The article, which was published online Monday night, indicates that Martyr Sadr had demanded that the captured militia member be freed, but this was rejected and instead the local government agreed that he would be brought before a court within 24 hours.
Yet on Wednesday Abaydi nullified any ceasefire and insisted on unconditional control of the city by legitimate Iraqi forces. The defense minister was quoted by an article published by Al-Rafidayn on Wednesday as saying
the agreement is void because it is not possible to reach an agreement with an illegal organization, especially for the Iraqi army… enforcement of the law will be quick… the government is giving a peaceable solution sufficient time, but if we do not see an end to the bearing of arms by militants and an enforcement of the law in an effective manner, well then the Iraqi army will enforce the law by force.
The article notes that the original ceasefire had been ordered by Sadr himself. An article in Al-Hayat published late Wednesday contained much of the same information, but it further added that the provincial governor and other local officials had persuaded the defense minister to abrogate the ceasefire and impose conditions as the defense ministry saw fit.
It is worth noting that Defense Minister Abaydi is Sunni and the provincial governor, Khalil Jalil, is a Shi’a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution In Iraq. SCIRI is the lead party in the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, and so formally SCIRI and the Sadr faction are allies, but in fact they are longtime rivals. While SCIRI has largely followed the line set forth by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in favor of national reconciliation, the Sadrists have refused to accept the prime minister’s amnesty plan and have attempted to radicalize Iraq’s Shi’a population and maintain a state of war against Sunni Iraqis. The Sadrists’ relationship with the government in which they formally take part is illuminated by a statement from Martyr Sadr quoted in al-Hayat which is quoted as saying that the ISF was acting “as if it was an occupying army.” The same article quotes a leading Sadrist, Abu Mu’taz, as saying that they ordered their men to stand down “for fear of giving the enemy a pretext for striking at the movement and its leadership.” Sadr wants to live.
There is also to be an investigation into the gruesome executions which accompanied the fight. The demand for an investigation was made by the heads of local tribes and agreed to by the Iraqi defense ministry. Al-Rafidayn noted specifically that those tribes to which the beheaded soldiers belonged wanted to be involved in the investigation. This showdown did not make Sadr any friends.
Reuters reports on comments from Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih that Prime Minister Maliki is planning to reshuffle the government soon, reassigning cabinet posts based upon factions’ support for the government’s policies on reconciliation. The report suggests that Sadrist ministers might be removed, and notes that one, the transport minister, has already resigned. Comments of this nature have been reported in the Iraqi press repeatedly over the past few weeks, and the fact that it is so often mentioned without execution suggests that Maliki is using these leaks as a means of pressuring Sadr.