March 27, 2006

Iraq Army, Coalition Begin Mahdi Militia Campaign

Hatched by Sachi

As Big Lizards reported over the weekend, the Iraqi Army with American advisors clashed with (it is now clear) a unit of Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Militia. From the New York Times:

The country's Shiite political leadership on Monday angrily denounced an American-backed military raid on a Shiite compound that left at least 16 people dead, as political leaders suspended talks over the formation of a new government....

In a statement on Monday about the raid, the American command did not vary much from its original public account Sunday night. It maintained that Iraqi and American troops had raided "multiple structures" but not a mosque, as Shiite leaders have contended, and that troops received fire from "several buildings near the target area." The troops killed 16 insurgents, wounded three, detained 18 other people, discovered a weapons stockpile and released a dental technician who had been taken hostage, the statement said.

But Iraqi government officials and political leaders vociferously disputed the American command's version of events, insisting that Iraqi and American troops had raided the Mustafa mosque, in the Ur neighborhood, as worshippers gathered for evening prayer.

We have highlighted the new information since yesterday: that we and the Iraqi Army discovered a weapons "stockpile" and that we detained eighteen people from the raid. Naturally, Iraqi Shiite officials dispute our version; but they cannot even keep their own stories straight:

But even among Iraqi government and political officials, there were significant differences in their accounts of Sunday's events. Some said the death toll was higher than 20, though there appeared to be consensus that the majority of the victims were members of the Iraq Branch of the Islamic Dawa Party who were meeting at the time of the raid in a party office attached to the mosque.

Khudair al-Khuzaie, the spokesman for the Iraq Branch of the Islamic Dawa Party, said he knew of 16 victims, all of whom were killed in the party's office, which is accessible through a doorway from the mosque's courtyard. Of the victims, he said, 13 were party members and three were civilians visiting the office. None of those 16 victims were [sic] in the mosque to pray, he added. [Note that this actually verifies the U.S. version, as do the statements of residents who witnessed the firefight. -- the Mgt.]

[Haydar al-Abadi, a top advisor to Transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari] said that at least 17 people died, and that there was no armed resistance to the raid. "The executions took place in cold blood," he said.

[Yet witnesses who live in that neighborhood described a furious gun battle that went on for more than an hour, and we recovered a "stockpile" of weapons. -- the Mgt.]

In the hours after the attack, an official in the office of Moktada al-Sadr, the renegade and anti-American Shiite cleric, claimed that members of his Mahdi Army were among the victims. But on Monday, another Sadr representative said no Mahdi Army fighters died in the raid....

At a funeral procession today for victims of the clash, the mood was tense and members of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, kept their weapons on prominent display.

The quote from Abadi raises an interesting point. So far, we have heard denunciations of this raid from Abadi, the "top advisor" for Ibrahim al-Jaafari; Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, hand-picked by Jaafari for the position; and Jawad al-Maliki, an "ally" of Jaafari. Jaafari was put into power partly through the support of Muqtada Sadr (which is one reason so many Sunni and Kurish Iraqis oppose his candidacy for prime minister); Sadr has also denounced the raid -- which appears to have been directed against his Mahdi Militia, who controlled that "mosque."

It's actually in dispute whether it was truly a mosque or just an unofficial gathering place for the Mahdi Militia. From Reuters:

One source of confusion over the site may be that the mosque in question, close to Sadr's Sadr City stronghold in northeast Baghdad, was not a traditional religious building but a compound of former Baath party offices converted by Sadr followers.

Do we detecta pattern here? So far, the only "officials" who have been quoted denouncing this raid as a massacre with Americans "entering the Mustafa Shiite mosque and killing worshippers" have been politicians closely connected with Muqtada Sadr -- who controlled the armed compound and whose militia was the target of the raid.

Healing Iraq's Zeyad recounts the incident. (Hat tip Belmont Club)

American forces clashed with Mahdi army militiamen at the Ur district (Hayy Ur), west of Sadr city in Baghdad. It seems an American force attempted to raid a husseiniya in the area and was resisted by militiamen inside.

Between 18 and 21 militiamen have been killed, and the Al-Mustafa Husseiniya was reported to be badly damaged in the ensuing firefight.

This battle has long been coming. The tempo of events makes very clear that there has been a long-expected shift in the Coalition and Iraqi Army strategy:

  • In mid-March, we reported that "the Iraqi Army's 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 6th Iraq Army Division has just taken over security in Sadr City." Sadr City is Muqtada Sadr's stomping ground, named for the renegade cleric's far more respected (and respectable) father.
  • On March 23rd, we posted about an incident in which U.S. forces prevented Sadr's Mahdi militamen from rescuing Shiite pilgrams who were attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists. Instead, the Iraq Army pursued the attackers:

    The United States is pointedly preventing Muqtada Sadr from positioning himself as the savior of the Shia. A senior Shiite cleric, Hazem al-Aaraji, said on the Iraqiya television network that militiamen from the Mahdi Army had been dispatched to save the pilgrims, but that American forces had stopped them.

  • And now, an Iraqi Special Forces unit, with American advisors, has actually raided a "prayer room" controlled by the Mahdi Militia, directly confronting Sadr and his forces for the first time in more than a year.

The conclusion is unmistakable: we have decided that the capacity of foreign Sunni terrorists under Musab Zarqawi to affect the destiny of Iraq has been more or less neutralized; they can still kill people, as they did today, but they are powerless to prevent Iraq from becoming a democratic nation.

Instead, we now conclude that the Shiite militias are the graver danger: they threaten to undermine the legitmacy of the nascent government itself, particularly because of the likely connivance of Transitional Prime Minister al-Jaafari in the increasing murders committed by the Mahdi Militia and the Badr Brigades, the other major Shiite militia.

If indeed the forces of Muqtada Sadr and Ibrahim al-Jaafari are behind much of the "sectarian" violence (which looks more and more like political violence), as most now believe, then it's hardly surprising that Sadr and various allies of Jaafari are the loudest and shrillest voices condemning this raid as a "massacre" of innocent Moslems at prayer in a "mosque"... and playing down the Iraqi Army, who actually conducted it, in favor of blaming the Americans.

We have always believed that Muqtada Sadr is more dangerous to Iraq's future than Zarqawi; Sadr must be stopped... which probably means that he must eventually be killed. He will never give up his ambition to become Caliph of Mesopotamia or his ties to Iran, and both are challenges we cannot ignore. However, Sadr is still a popular figure among poor Shia. Killing him or destroying his mitila will not be well received by many Shiite Iraqis, who see him as a crusading hero.

Usually not-so-anti-America Al-Iraqiya TV is already putting a spin on the story. Zeyad explains.

Al-Iraqiya TV just aired some images from the husseiniya. 17 'guards' were killed. One of the corpses carried a Da'wa party (Iraq organisation) ID, and another carried an ID issued by the Islamic Conference of Iraqi Tribes.

Someone in the background was asking the cameraman to film grenades lying around the corpses, to which the cameraman responded: "I can't show our guys' grenades."

"No, these are American grenades," the man in the background explained.

"Oh, okay I'll film them."

Naturally, even the more moderate Shiia politicians are demanding full investigation; the raid caused a great deal of turmoil, and it must be fully explained to the Iraqi people.

President Talabani said at a news conference that Gen. George W. Casey Jr. agreed to the formation of the joint investigative committee. "I will personally supervise, and we will learn who was responsible," the president said. "Those who are behind this attack must be brought to justice and punished."

While this may sound ominous, like he had already made up his mind that the raid was unlawful, a fuller quotation from the Reuters article is more heartening:

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who has been hosting the negotiations said: "We have to know the truth about what happened, and we must not be driven by rumours. This is a very dangerous incident which we must investigate."

Omar, a Sunni who blogs at Iraq The Model, wonders what the real motivation is for this investigation/inquisition:

Actually the reactions to this incident are so intense compared the reactions when 30 or 40 beheaded or strangles [Sunni] bodies are found on nearly daily basis in Baghdad in a way that it makes me question the intentions of this part of the government even more...

The raid on the husseiniya is not going to be investigated because those killed were Iraqis or Shia, the government will open an investigation because those killed were Sadrists and because Muqtada feels this raid was targeting his militia and fears that letting this one go without making enough noise will probably encourage the Americans to carry out more raids.

Actually, it is already too late to pressure the Iraqi Army and the Coalition into easing attacks on the Mahdi Milita and the Badr Brigades. The strategy is set and we are implementing it with increasing operational tempo. I doubt we and the Iraq Army will quit until both paramilitary death squads are thoroughly suppressed.

Bill Roggio has a detailed account of the incident.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, March 27, 2006, at the time of 3:56 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

Program! ...I need a program! ...SOME way to keep track of who is whom in Iraq, and who(m?) they are affiliated with!

Something like the Political Spectrum graphic ( but for Iraqi politics. Anybody know where to get such a thing? In the meantime, your analysis is a welcome bit of reporting; wish I could still get the same from the old media guys. I'd still trust 'em if they'd provide some kind of context other than "It was America's fault".

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 27, 2006 5:50 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith

The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 27, 2006 11:39 PM

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