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Two US-Iraqi Raids Against the Sadriya

U.S. and Iraqi government forces have repeatedly clashed with the Shi’a militia loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, referred to as the Mahdi Army. Tensions have been high, as we have reported on several occasions (see especially our July 26 report, Sadr Faction Threatens to Turn on Maliki Government). There were two more important clashes this past week, the first on Monday August 7, targeting a Mahdi death squad. Reactions to the raid revealed strains within the government, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki claimed not to have been aware of the raid, and criticized it, while the Iraqi Defense Ministry confirmed approval. The second clash, this past Sunday, targeted militiamen in the Iraqi Health Ministry, which is headed by a Sadrist cabinet member, Ali al-Shamri.

Western and military sources (MNF-I, Reuters) indicate that the initial raid, which took place in Sadr City, Baghdad, involved a two-hour fight in which two Iraqis were killed and 18 wounded (from Sadr City), while one American soldier was injured. The raid targeted a Shi’a squad which was involved vigilante attacks and torturing of the Sunni.

The reaction within the Iraqi government shows the strain from the ongoing conflict with the Shi’a militia, aggravated by the fact that the Sadr faction has 30 members in parliament and holds seats in the cabinet. As reported by the Karbala News Agency, Prime Minister Maliki claimed that the operation was not authorized, yet the Iraqi defense ministry confirmed emphatically that it was authorized. A spokesman was quoted as saying that the operation took place “with the knowledge of the Iraqi government… and with the knowledge of the defense ministry, executed by forces under the authority of the ministry… with participation and support from American forces.”

Leading members of the Sadriya in parliament, as quoted in Al-Hayat, argued that U.S. forces were attempting to draw them into open conflict, something which is looking more and more inevitable as Sunni complaints of Mahdi attacks on civilians continue. Yet Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, while “mediating” between U.S. forces and the Sadrists, openly recognized that they were engaging in illegal activities. As reported separately by a KNA report and by the Al-Hayat article linked above, Talabani stood by U.S. General George Casey at a press conference and said he would ask U.S. forces to release Sadrist prisoners “incrementally” and that he also wanted the Sadrists to “avoid interfering in security matters and respect the law.” The KNA article also quoted Talabani as saying that “it is not in the interests of the government or the Sadr faction or the Americans” to engage in confrontation.

Part of the problem may be timing; with Israel and Hizballah fighting in Lebanon and criticism of Israel running high in Iraq, Maliki must have felt pressured to criticize the anti-Sadr raid. There have been several anti-Sadr raids over the past several weeks that have drawn no comment from the prime minister, although there was one in which the Shi’a interior minister claimed that an attack was unauthorized, even though the Sunni defense minister said that it was (no U.S. attacks on the Mahdi Army have taken place recently without approval from the defense ministry). The Sadrists themselves stated – and this was reported all over the Iraqi media – that the U.S. was attacking them because they were protesting over Lebanon.

Despite the split in the government caused by last week’s raid, on Sunday U.S. and Iraqi forces launched another anti-Sadr raid, but this time against Sadrists in the health ministry. According to Al-Hayat, American and Iraqi troops raided the health ministry for the third time Sunday, and arrested seven personal guards of the Sadrist minister, which suggests that they were members of the Mahdi Army. The U.S. military has not yet issued a report on the raid, but there is no indication that this raid has aroused the controversy of the previous one.

Feedback

Thank you for reporting on this again, Kirk. It is the most important issue facing Iraq and I think will determine whether we succeed or fail.

The good news is, as you say at the end, we're continuing to launch raids.

It seems that our strategy is to incrementally wear down the Shi’a militia, rather than force it in a few big battles. We don't want to risk a political explosion within Iraq. Your thoughts?

It seems like what we are doing is taking down the most egregious offenders, sort of like a Sadrist Most Wanted List, and those are the death squad and prison cell leaders. But yes, we are definitely avoiding an all-out war with Sadr, and the reason is political.

This issue really is where the security and political issues meet; the domestic insurgents are increasingly willing to join the political process, but they can't be expected to put down their arms if the Mahdi Army doesn't. So Maliki's credibility really hangs on this issue; if he cracks down on Sadr it will be difficult for him, but it will give him more political capital in dealing with the Sunnis.

I hope to write a more in-depth piece on this precise issue in the next couple of weeks, and try to put all the pieces together. Thanks for your comments.

Thanks, Kirk.