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Iraqis Insist Civilians Perished in Shu'la Clashes; US Sees "No Evidence"
08/25/2007 04:59 AM ET
Iraqis carry the coffins of people killed in overnight fighting in Bahgdad's Shu'la district, Aug. 24.
Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP.
Iraqis carry the coffins of people killed in overnight fighting in Bahgdad's Shu'la district, Aug. 24.

Funeral processions in Baghdad’s Shu'la district touched off public demonstrations protesting alleged US hostilities in the area, and demanding that the Iraqi government protect local residents, sources in the northwestern area of the capital told IraqSlogger.

Tensions remain high in Shu'la and US forces are still deployed in the area, eyewitnesses said, as controversy roils over US actions late Thursday night in the Shu’la district.

Iraqis insist that US raids and gunfire killed and injured noncombatant residents of the region, while US forces claim that there is no evidence of civilian casualties from the predawn fighting.

IraqSlogger sources in the district report that the US raids that led to the fighting late Thursday were tipped off by local residents, who informed US forces of the location of weapons caches.

After the US raids were underway, Mahdi Army fighters clashed with US forces during the night, leading to the deaths of some militiamen, locals inform IraqSlogger, adding that the fighting centered around the Shu'lat al-Sadrayn mosque.

While other media reports do not specify the affiliation of the gunmen involved in the fighting, IraqSlogger sources confirm that US forces faced off with members of the Mahdi Army, the Shi'a militia nominally loyal to the Sadrist current, the political and religious movement under the leadership of the young Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Locals tell Slogger that militants did indeed perish in the fighting, but they also insist that at many of the bodies transported on Friday from Shu'la to Najaf for burial in the holy Shi'a city on Friday were civilian victims of the overnight battles.

For its part, however, the US military has not recognized any civilian casualties.

US statement

In a statement, US forces said that fighting broke out when its troops came under attack during a search for a weapons cache in Shu'la on Thursday night.

“Troop C, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment attached to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, confirmed killing 8 enemy combatants who were engaging a U.S. patrol with small arms and machine gun fire," the statement read.

“During the firefight, attack helicopters from the 4th ‘Guns’ Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, observed eight to 12” militiamen, armed with “AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades,” the statement reads, adding that the armed men were “moving toward Coalition Forces.”

“The pilots fired on the armed men and shortly thereafter observed several other Iraqi citizens policing up the site of the attack,” the statement adds.

The gunfire subsided, the statement says, and US troops located a weapons cache of “several mortars rounds, two explosively-formed projectile roadside bombs, a rocket, other small arms weapons and command wire in an abandoned house.”

“There is no evidence of civilian casualties,” the American statement said.

However, local officials and other residents corroborate Slogger’s eyewitness accounts that civilians were killed and wounded in the Shu'la battles. Death counts from various Iraqi sources are not in complete agreement, but number from around 9 or 10 civilians to as high as 21.

Sleeping on the rooftop

Iraqis in Najaf carry the coffins of people killed in Shu'la before their burial in the holy city.
Photo by Qassem Zein/AFP.
Iraqis in Najaf carry the coffins of people killed in Shu'la before their burial in the holy city.
A witness told Aswat al-Iraq that clashes broke out between militants and American forces when US troops entered the district on Thursday evening, adding that US helicopter gunships opened fire in the district, apparently targeting militants, but added that civilian casualties resulted because many area residents were sleeping on the roofs of their homes, a common Iraqi practice to escape the heat of the hot summer nights.

Women and children were among those civilians who died as a result of the US helicopters’ gunfire and ground fighting between US forces and militants, the resident said, according to the news agency’s report in Arabic.

Speaking anonymously, an official at Nour Hospital in Shu'la also told the AP that a woman and young boy were among the dead, counting the injured at 16, including four women and three early teenage boys, who had been sleeping on the roofs.

In addition, Iraqi police sources stated that civilians numbered among the dead and wounded, telling Aswat al-Iraq anonymously on Friday that at least ten people were killed and 20 injured during the armed clashes between militants and US forces as US forces attempted to enter the area Thursday evening at 11:00 p.m. Thursday evening, adding that the civilian dead and wounded included women and children.

A tribal shaykh from the region, Sabih al-Shurji, told Aswat al-Iraq that, “The air strikes and indiscriminate gunfire of US forces upon the district led to the death of nine people and the injury of 25 others,” adding that the majority of the victims died from US air-to-surface fire “because they were sleeping on the roofs of their homes.”

Sadrists protest

Asmaa al-Mousawi, a member of the municipal council in Shu'la, told Aswat al-Iraq that the local body had decided after its Friday meeting to raise a legal complaint against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in light of the “violation” that occurred in the Shu'la area.

Mousawi, a member of the political bureau of the Sadrist organization, also holds a seat in the Iraqi parliament with the Sadr bloc.

In addition to the reported deadly gunfire from US airships, the MP said that US forces had earlier arrested women and family members of those wanted by the US forces, Aswat al-Iraq writes.

The US air strikes and raids focused on sectors 1 and 2 of Shu'la, Mousawi added. The predominantly Shi'a district is divided into 15 sectors, of which numbers 1 and 2 are located at the east end of the district.

“The American army blockaded the area and closed off its outlets a few days after arresting the women and the families of the wanted men,” she told Aswat al-Iraq, saying that the political committee of the Shu'la municipal council had decided to raise the legal complaint in Iraqi courts against the prime minister in order to hold him “morally and legally responsible” for the deaths and detentions.

The council would demand that Maliki either hold the Americans accountable or leave office, Mousawi said, adding that the local body will bring the complaint against the prime minister because in “occupied Iraq” it was not possible to bring complaints against the American forces.

However, Mousawi denied that Iraqi forces had participated in the raids and in the arrests of family members of wanted men, directing the accusations solely against US forces, Aswat al-Iraq reports.

From Najaf, Nasser al-Rubaie, the leader of the Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi parliament, said that 21 civilians died in Shu'la, and said the Maliki government was “weak and can do nothing in the face of the occupation,” the AP writes.

The flame of the Sadrs

An Iraqi fastens the coffin of a person killed in overnight clashes between US forces and Shi'a militias to a van's roof in front of portraits of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr (L) and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr in Baghdad's Shu'la district, August 24.
Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP.
An Iraqi fastens the coffin of a person killed in overnight clashes between US forces and Shi'a militias to a van's roof in front of portraits of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr (L) and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr in Baghdad's Shu'la district, August 24.
Shu'la is a working-class district on the northwestern perimeter of Baghdad. The predominantly Shi'a area regularly experiences indiscriminate mortar attacks from the rural areas outside Baghdad, and from areas of the capital that are under the control of extremist Sunni groups, such as Ghazaliya, residents told IraqSlogger.

Support for the Sadrist current runs strong in the district. In fact residents dubbed the area Shu'lat al-Sadrayn after the fall of the Ba'thist regime in 2003, a name that translates to “the flame of the two Sadrs,” referring to the two late Shi'a clerics held in high esteem by the Sadrist current, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, father-in-law and blood relative of Muqtada al-Sadr, and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father.

Members of IraqSlogger’s network of Iraqi staff contributed to this report, but choose to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Composite satellite image of northwestern Baghdad shows relative location of Shu'la district, west of the Tigris River.
Google Earth image.
Composite satellite image of northwestern Baghdad shows relative location of Shu'la district, west of the Tigris River.

At Least 50 Dead in Fighting; Millions of Pilgrims Flee; Standoff in City Center
08/28/2007 5:17 PM ET
Smoke billows over Karbala on Tuesday after clashes erupted in the shrine city.
Smoke billows over Karbala on Tuesday after clashes erupted in the shrine city.

As many as one million or more pilgrims are fleeing the city of Karbala after deadly clashes broke out Monday between gunmen and security forces during an annual Shi'a pilgrimage to the shrine city, with the death toll climbing as high as 50.

Sources inside the Sadrist current privately told IraqSlogger that they viewed the fighting as an act of provocation against the powerful Shi'a movement, even as the organization called publicly for calm.

Local sources in Karbala report to Slogger that the city is under full curfew since Tuesday, while American jets crisscross the skies above the shrine city amid rising tensions between rival Shi'a factions and an ongoing standoff in the center of town.

Clashes erupt

An injured pilgrim is rushed to hospital after during fighting in Karbala.
An injured pilgrim is rushed to hospital after during fighting in Karbala.
Eyewitnesses in Karbala told IraqSlogger that initial clashes were touched off Monday evening when lightly armed supporters of the Sadrist current, who had walked to Karbala from the northwestern Baghdad neighborhood of Shu'la, attempted to pass through the checkpoints installed around the city while carrying their weapons.

It is unclear from conflicting accounts which side fired first. Security forces used “heavy machine guns” against the crowds, leading to a high death toll, local sources told IraqSlogger, saying that the gunfire of the security forces killed and injured pilgrims indiscriminately.

Security reinforcements have arrived from the neighboring provinces of Babil and Najaf to support Iraqi forces in Karbala, eyewitnesses tell Slogger.

One eyewitness, from the Karbala area, told Aswat al-Iraq that the clashes broke out “when unknown gunmen attacked some of the checkpoints near the Baghdad Gate,” which is about 200 meters from the Shi'a shrine of Abbas at the center of the city, the agency reports in Arabic.

The fighting sent thousands of pilgrims fleeing to the parking areas on the outskirts of town, Aswat al-Iraq adds.

On the orders of the security forces, pilgrims are now evacuating Karbala without completing the ritual visitation known as the Sha'baniya, Aswat al-Iraq reports in Arabic. Media reports put the number of pilgrims leaving Karbala at over one million.

A standoff continued Tuesday near Karbala’s two important shrines, the Iraqi interior ministry said, as gunmen have taken up fortified positions in the ancient city center.

Eyewitnesses in Karbala told Aswat al-Iraq that three hotels have been burned in the city and that “plumes of smoke” are visible over the town. The Asad Allah, al-Anwar, and al-Rahman hotels are located near the two Shi'a shrines in the center of the city. Eyewitnesses explained that the buildings were ignited by automobiles that caught fire during the fighting clashes, including a number of vehicles belonging to the police and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.

In the context of the curfew and ongoing hostilities, accurate casualty information is difficult to secure. CNN Arabic puts the death toll as high as 50, while other media sources give estimates in the 20s.

Sadrist suspicions

Wounded Iraqi pilgrim lies in hospital in Karbala after being injured during clashes in Karbala.
Wounded Iraqi pilgrim lies in hospital in Karbala after being injured during clashes in Karbala.
While the Sadrist movement has publicly appealed for calm, sources in the Sadrist organization have told IraqSlogger privately that they view the fighting in Karbala as a provocative strike by rival Shi'a forces against the popular movement.

It bears noting that tensions were already high during the pilgrimage as government and security forces in Karbala are controlled by rival Shi'a currents, especially the Badr organization loyal to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, which has a strong presence in the security forces. The Sadrist current and the SIIC have been engaged in an escalating struggle for power within Iraq’s Shi'a areas.

Other security forces involved in the clash are the guards of the Karbala shrines themselves, who work in the employ of the Shi'a clerical hierarchy loyal to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with whom the Sadrist current has had an uneasy and often antagonistic relationship dating back to the rule of Saddam Hussein, when Sadrists accused Sistani and others of silence and indifference about the conditions of Iraq’s Shi'a popular classes during the Ba'thist period.

“This attack is a move by Sistani, Badr, and Iran,” a source in the Karbala Sadrist office said to IraqSlogger, requesting anonymity, adding that he viewed the fighting as part of an attempt to permanently alter the balance of power between the powerful Sadrist current and other rival Shi'a forces.

The Sadrist office has ordered its followers to be on the alert, but not to engage in attacks, Slogger sources report. The AP adds that Sadrist officials have publicly appealed for calm, but the powerful Shi'a movement has not directed public accusations towards rival political forces.

The heavy security cordon around the holy city was also a source of agitation for pilgrims. Pilgrims had to pass through four rings of checkpoints around the city, many of them after traveling the 50-mile distance from Baghdad on foot in the summer heat because of the vehicle curfew imposed in the capital for the holiday.

A witness told Aswat al-Iraq that high-ranking Shi'a clerics (maraji') had issued “appeals for calm and for a cease-fire” to both the security forces and the gunmen.

Imam al-Mahdi

Each year Shi'a faithful observe the pilgrimage known as the Sha'baniya, honoring the birthday of the 12th Shi'a Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. Muhammad al-Mahdi was born during Sha'ban, eighth month of the lunar Islamic calendar.

The Imam al-Mahdi, as he is known, disappeared mysteriously in the ninth century. The faithful believe that he has been taken into hiding, and will return to restore justice to the earth.

It is from the figure of the Imam al-Mahdi that the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi), the armed group nominally loyal to the Sadrist current, led by Muqtada al-Sadr has taken its name.

Karbala is host to two major Shi'a shrines, the tomb of the third Shi'a Imam, Husayn, son of Ali and grandson of the prophet Muhammad; and the tomb of Husayn’s half-brother Abbas. The two shrines are located near each other in the center of the old city. Karbala is traditionally a destination of Shi'a pilgrimage during Sha'baniya and other holy occasions.

Armed standoff in Karbala’s old city

The spokesman of the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Gen. Abd al-Karim Khalaf, said that the security forces of the Interior Ministry had arrived in Karbala on Tuesday, on the orders of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Aswat al-Iraq reports in Arabic.

The interior ministry spokesman said that Interior Ministry Jawad al-Bulani had sent the interior ministry forces to Karbala on the orders of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Additional forces were sent to Karbala on Tuesday to secure the city, Khalaf said, and to confront the gunmen who remain fortified inside the city.

Forces of the Iraqi defense and interior ministries have “surrounded Karbala,” he said, Aswat al-Iraq reports, “and the gunmen are holed up in an area between the two holy sites, not more than a square kilometer” in the center of the city, Aswat al-Iraq writes.

The identity of the gunmen pinned down in the city center is not known.

“The militants have violated the most holy site, and the most holy religious occasion, to implement their plans,” saying that the gunmen “smuggled weapons inside the city of Karbala days before the beginning of the al-Sha'baniya pilgrimage,” Khalaf added.

The Interior spokesman did not say more about who might be behind the violence in Karbala, saying only that investigations “are now underway to uncover the details of the event.”

Khalaf said that the pilgrims have been evacuated from the areas around the city” indicating that there is “no problem on the roads leading to Karbala or in any area surrounding it,” and confirming that the clashes are in an isolated area between the two shrines in the city center.”

A relative calm is beginning to prevail in the city, Khalaf said, after the “deployment of Iraqi security forces to all areas of Karbala to preserve security, as well as the intervention of the marja'iyat (the highest-ranking Shi'a clerics) in the city to stop the riotous acts.”

Ammar al-Sa'idi, head of the legal opinions committee in the Sadrist current said that most of the dozens of dead and wounded are Shi'a pilgrims who had come to visit the holy shrine. The majority of the victims “are still in the streets of the area between the two shrines,” he said, and they have not been evacuated because of the clashes and the deployment of snipers on the rooftops around the neighboring buildings and hotels.”

As for the reasons of the outbreak, al-Sa'idi told Aswat al-Iraq that “a number of pilgrims chanted slogans to extol the Army of the Imam al-Mahdi, and the Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, and this stirred the rancor of the forces controlling the two shrines . . . compelling them to open fire on the defenseless pilgrims.”

The Sadrist leader also claimed that “the pilgrims were not permitted to possess any weapons, because of the intense security procedures that made it difficult for any person to bring weapons past the inspection points leading to the city.”

In a seeming contradiction, he added that the clashes broke out “after members of the Mahdi Army opened fire in retaliation for the unjustified killing of unarmed pilgrims in front of their eyes.”

Members of IraqSlogger's Network of Iraqi staff contributed to this report but choose to remain anonymous for security reasons

Composite satellite image of Karbala's two Shi'a shrines and the location of Monday's fighting.
Google Earth image.
Composite satellite image of Karbala's two Shi'a shrines and the location of Monday's fighting.

Renegade Elements Burned Rivals' Offices, Sadrist Officials Insist
08/30/2007 09:00 AM ET
Poster shows Muqtada al-Sadr and his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.
Photo by Wissam al-Okaili/AFP.
Poster shows Muqtada al-Sadr and his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

US forces are not the only ones counting on extra muscle from armed Iraqi tribesmen, IraqSlogger sources report from Baghdad.

Tribal fighters bussed in to Baghdad from southern Iraq by a powerful Shi'a party fought pitched battles with elements of the Mahdi Army in Sadr City on Tuesday, in heavy fighting that destroyed several homes, part of a spiraling pattern of attacks between armed elements of rival Shi'a parties in Iraq.

The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), one of the principal Shi'a parties on the Iraqi political scene, hired tribal forces from around the southern city of 'Amara in Iraq’s Maysan Province, bringing them to Baghdad for the purposes of guarding the offices of the SIIC and the Badr organization -- widely recognized as the paramilitary wing of the SIIC -- in Sadr City. Support for the SIIC in the Eastern Baghdad district, stronghold of the Sadrist current and its Mahdi Army, is a minority position to say the least, and SICC earlier moved in the tribal forces in a bid to tip the balance of forces in its favor in the Sadrist bastion, Slogger sources say.

Local sources say the tribal force in the employ of the SIIC numbers as high as 1,000 tribesmen of the Abu al-'Ayta tribe, a branch of the al-Bu Muhammad tribe, centered in Maysan province. The Abu al-'Ita are known for their toughness and fighting prowess, local sources relayed, and even the Saddam Hussein regime was unable to completely bring them to heel.

The SIIC (formerly known as SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), took a gamble bringing tribesmen from 'Amara to bear arms in Sadr City, but the the move -- in addition to the extra muscle it provided -- aimed at exploiting tribal and regional ties between the hired guards and residents of the sprawling Baghdad district. Many of Sadr City’s families are originally from areas around 'Amara, and share tribal and even family connections with the men hired to guard the SIIC offices.

On Tuesday, however, these common ties proved to be insufficient: Elements of the Mahdi Army -- outside the control of Muqtada al-Sadr, Sadrist officials insisted privately to Slogger -- approached the SIIC and nearby Badr offices in Sadr City, and open fighting broke out. The SIIC and Badr offices survived the assault, while the heavy fighting damaged several nearby houses, some of which burned completely.

It is unlikely that the hired tribal fighters could repel an attack backed by the full force of the Mahdi Army, but on Tuesday, at least, they were successful in holding off elements of the Sadrist militia.

'Amara, Sadr City, and the Sadrist current have longstanding links in Iraqi history dating back to the early years of the Iraqi republic. The government of Abd al-Karim Qasim began construction of the district's massive grid in 1961, naming the new area Madinat al-Thawra or “Revolution City,” after the 1958 military coup ("revolution") that swept the British-installed Hashemite monarchy from power. Al-Thawra was to be the signature housing relief project of the new republican regime. Many of the new district's inhabitants migrated to Baghdad from the southern rural areas. One study estimated that about 80% of the original population of al-Thawra came from the areas around 'Amara in Maysan province, 190 miles to the southeast. In 1982 the Ba'thist regime changed the name of the district to Saddam City, dubbed by its residents Sadr City in 2003, in honor of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Muqtada, and Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, both influential Iraqi Shi'a clerics associated with the development of the Sadrist current, for whom that populist Shi'a movement is also named.

Unruly militia

Militiamen of SIIC's Badr organization carry a mock coffin with photo of late Shi'a leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, brother of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim in Najaf in July 2006.
Photo by Qassem Zein/AFP.
Militiamen of SIIC's Badr organization carry a mock coffin with photo of late Shi'a leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, brother of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim in Najaf in July 2006.
In Baghdad, according to Slogger’s sources, the SIIC made the special arrangement to use paid tribesmen for protection in Sadr City alone, where support for the rival Sadrist current and Mahdi Army is overwhelming compared to that for the SIIC. At other SIIC offices around Baghdad, the Badr organization and regular Iraqi police provide security. Some of these offices did not fare as well as the SIIC and Badr offices in Sadr City on Tuesday. In Kadhimiya, for example, elements of the Mahdi Army overcame the men guarding the SIIC offices, burning them down.

Tuesday’s siege of the SIIC offices in Sadr City and Kadhimiya were part of a series of attacks by elements of the Mahdi Army on offices belonging to the SIIC and Islamic Da'wa parties. On Wednesday, the Da'wa office in Karbala was burned in Karbala by unknown assailants, perhaps related to the ongoing spiral of violence, and several SIIC installations were attacked in Baghdad, Babil, and Najaf Provinces, including .

While a recent outbreak of fighting in the important Shi'a shrine city of Karbala -- in which scores were killed and hundreds injured -- seems to have set off the wave of attacks on Tuesday, it bears noting that the Sadrist current and SIIC have been locked in a longstanding power struggle in Iraq’s Shi'a areas -- a rivalry that dates back even to their days as opposition movements to the Ba'thist regime. Moreover, the Sadrist current has become increasingly vocal in its disenchantment with the Maliki government -- which it helped establish, but from which it has since withdrawn -- especially over the issue of ongoing US and Iraqi attacks on suspected Mahdi Army targets, which often lead to heavy civilian casualties, the Sadrists allege.

Tensions have flared recently after the assassination of two SIIC-affiliated governors affiliated to the SIIC in Qadisiya and Muthanna provinces earlier this month in two separate roadside bomb attacks.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the SIIC.
Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty.
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the SIIC.
The assassins of the two governors have not been identified, but unconfirmed speculation has centered on elements of the Mahdi Army in both attacks, and mutual suspicions have soared between the Shi'a parties. On Monday, unknown militants launched arson raids against stores and houses of Sadr supporters in Rumaytha, near Samawa, capital of Muthanna province, where tensions have flared since the assassination of the provincial governor, al-Melaf Press reports in Arabic. Members of the assassinated governor’s guards and some members of his tribes were involved in the incendiary attacks in Rumaytha, where the assassinated governor had his residence. Stores and homes belonging to Sadr supporters were burned, as well as the home of a man accused of involvement in the explosion that killed Governor Muhammad Ali Hassani. A Sadrist-affiliated mosque also took gunfire.

Sources close to the Sadrist organization in Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala insisted to IraqSlogger that the widespread attacks on the offices of rival Shi'a parties were not ordered or supported by the "official" Sadrist offices. While many if not all of the attacks on the SIIC and Islamic Da'wa party offices were launched by elements related to the Mahdi Army, Sadrists privately claim that they were outside the control of the Sadrist organization, which has been unable to impose discipline over the whole of the unruly and decentralized Mahdi Army.

In such a context, the apparent difficulty of the "official" Sadrist organization -- that hierarchy that still follows the orders of to Muqtada al-Sadr -- in imposing discipline on the loosely organized and often autonomous armed elements referring to themselves collectively as the "Mahdi Army" come into view. Muqtada al-Sadr issued a surprise decree on Wednesday, ordering that all Mahdi Army armed activity come to a halt for a period of up to six months while the militiamen are "rehabilitated" -- and while the "official" Sadrist offices presumably attempt a new round of purges of the militia's ranks.

Members of IraqSlogger's network of Iraqi staff contributed to this report, but choose to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Composite satellite image shows relative location of Baghdad, 'Amara, and the major cities of southern Iraq.
Google Earth image.
Composite satellite image shows relative location of Baghdad, 'Amara, and the major cities of southern Iraq.

Slogger Sources: Mahdi Army Violence against SIIC in Lawless Southwest Baghdad
08/31/2007 09:00 AM ET
Preparations in Sadr City in advance of a three-day mourning period for victims of recent fighting in Karbala.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP.
Preparations in Sadr City in advance of a three-day mourning period for victims of recent fighting in Karbala.

As most media outlets focused on the relative calm in Baghdad's Sadr City on the first full day of the Mahdi Army cease-fire, Slogger's sources report that elements of the Sadrist militia were involved in violent acts elsewhere in the capital. Local sources confirm media reports that Mahdi Army activity in Baghdad was greatly reduced on Thursday, the first full day after Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his nominally loyal militia to “freeze” its activities for internal reorganization. However, Baghdad residents also report armed activities by suspected Mahdi Army elements that many major media reports seem to have overlooked.

While the stronghold of Sadr City was calm, as many news outlets have reported, suspected Mahdi Army elements were involved in several violent events in the lawless southwestern area of the capital, where Mahdi Army members have a record of acting independently of the “official” Sadrist line.

Baghdad’s tumultuous mixed southwestern districts, including al-Amil, al-Risala, al-Ma'alif, al-Rashid, al-Jihad, al-Furat, and others – all clustered around the al-Bayya' district, have so far foiled any Iraqi and US effort to impose control since the beginning of the Baghdad security plan, and remain under control of rival sectarian militias, including the Mahdi Army in many Shi'a areas.

As such, it should not be surprising that of all areas of Baghdad, the Sadrist organization has apparently not been able to impose discipline on the Mahdi Army there.

In fact it was in these dangerous districts where Mahdi Army men began to take up arms during the last militia-wide stand-down orders, when Muqtada al-Sadr directed the Mahdi Army to lay low as the cleric himself went into hiding at the beginning of the Baghdad Security Plan in February.

As Slogger’s readers read throughout the spring, vicious low-level turf wars between rival sectarian militias in these dangerous areas brought elements of the Mahdi Army out with their weapons long before the militia (and Sadr) resurfaced on a national level.

Yet on Thursday, it was not the sectarian power struggle between suspected Mahdi Army elements and the shadowy Sunni militia known as Jaysh 'Umar (after the second Sunni caliph, or successor to the prophet Muhammad) that brought Mahdi Army elements out with their weapons, Slogger sources report.

Instead, suspected Mahdi Army members in southwestern Baghdad took up arms to conduct a third day of attacks on installations of a rival Shi'a organization, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), and its paramilitary wing, the Badr organization, local sources told IraqSlogger.

In the al-'Amil district, by many accounts the most dangerous area of Baghdad, SIIC offices and mosques affiliated with that Shi'a party came under attack on Thursday in what appears to be the continuation of a spate of reprisal attacks by Mahdi Army elements on the installations of rival Shi'a parties after the fighting in the shrine city of Karbala during a Shi'a pilgrimage on Monday and Tuesday that killed scores of people, many of them unarmed pilgrims, and injured hundreds more.

The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, is the major rival to the Sadrist current in the Iraqi Shi'a community. The two parties have been locked in a longstanding power struggle that combines local turf wars across Iraq’s Shi'a areas with bitter differences over the policies of the Maliki government, which SIIC continues to back, in alliance with the United States.

Slogger sources also report that Mahdi Army-related elements abducted two governmental employees with SIIC affiliations in the courts of nearby Bayya’ district.

Also in Bayya’, the home of a high-ranking member of the Badr organization was burned in an arson attack, which local sources also attribute to Mahdi Army members. Badr is widely recognized as the paramilitary wing of the SIIC.

Similar attacks on SIIC mosques, offices, and on the homes of known SIIC officials were also reported in nearby Risala and Ma'alif areas, IraqSlogger learned from its sources in the capital.

Under siege, Sadr City calm – for now

Sadr City, August 30.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP.
Sadr City, August 30.
Meanwhile, across the Tigris River to the northeast, the Sadrist current enjoys a more thorough grip on power in the impoverished Sadr City slum. Several media reports indicated that the Sadrist stronghold was calm on Thursday, in spite of a siege by Iraqi forces. Checkpoints normally staffed by Mahdi Army foot soldiers protecting the district were abandoned, and local militia commanders reportedly began preparations for what appear to be coming attempts to purge the ranks of the Mahdi Army.

Writing in Arabic, al-Melaf quotes sources “close to the Sadrist current” who say that the commanders of the Mahdi Army are monitoring for cases of “rebellion” in the Mahdi Army, looking for those whose conduct falls outside the parameters of Sadr’s orders to stand down.

The sources told the agency that militia commanders have already begun their work to rid the decentralized and loosely organized Mahdi Army of disloyal and unruly elements, but, as al-Melaf writes, the implementation of Sadr’s alleged housecleaning “on the ground” is still unclear.

As the events reported by Slogger’s sources in the unruly southwest of the capital, “disloyal” Mahdi Army members are already beginning to surface. What the reaction of the “official” Sadrist leadership will be towards such open challenges to its leadership is not yet known.

A mixture of loyalty and confusion reigns over the whole process in Sadr City, Al-Jazeera Net writes in a short Arabic-language piece featuring comments from supporters in the Mahdi Army stronghold.

One young Mahdi Army commander told the Qatari broadcaster that, “We will implement (al-Sadr’s) decision to the letter, and we will not permit anyone to act outside of it under any pretext.” The militia capo welcomes Wednesday’s decree as a positive step in “rebuilding” the Mahdi Army, rejecting those elements of the militia who ignore the orders of Muqtada al-Sadr in favor of “their own decision making.”

However, another local supporter of the Sadrist current, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ka'bi, seemed to shade toward a reinterpretation of the cleric’s orders, telling al-Jazeera, “I don’t think that the decision to freeze the Mahdi Army includes military operations against the oppressive occupier,” referring to the US forces with whom elements of the Mahdi Army have been involved in an escalating conflict in the capital and elsewhere.

What role will US play?

Sadr City, August 30. Poster in foreground depicts the Shi'a Imam Husayn, while Muqtada al-Sadr, his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and father-in-law Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr are pictured on poster in background.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP.
Sadr City, August 30. Poster in foreground depicts the Shi'a Imam Husayn, while Muqtada al-Sadr, his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and father-in-law Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr are pictured on poster in background.
Indeed, potential US attacks on the deactivated Mahdi Army seem to be at the top of the list of Sadrist concerns during the militia’s “freeze”. An article published prominently on the Nahrain Net website, associated with the Sadrist current, quotes the director of the Sadrist office (known as the Office of the Martyr Sadr, after Muqtada’s father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a high-ranking Shi'a cleric killed in 1999 -- by the Ba'thist regime, his followers allege), who reiterates that the order to halt armed activities of the Mahdi Army was handed down “without exceptions,” and includes attacks on the American and Coalition Forces.

A “source in the Sadrist current” confirmed with Nahrain Net that the Mahdi Army will “reorganize” during the up to six-month period of the cease-fire. Sadr’s decision “does not mean the non-response to any attack or provocation that the occupation forces or the sectarian powers may launch at the sons of the Mahdi Army,” referring to the right of self defense, “even with the existence of this decree.”

“Will the US forces issue an order not to harass the Mahdi Army, or will they find this cease-fire an opportunity to redouble their attacks against elements of this army which has lost hundreds of martyrs to the attacks of the American forces . . . ?,” Nahrain Net’s anonymous Sadrist official asked, referring in his remarks to “more than 2,000” Mahdi Army members arrested in the past eight months, “among them clerics, and social and political activist leaders.

The LA Times also reports from Sadr City, where a Sadr aide, Abu Firas Muteri, suggested that " the halt can be revoked at any time” if such a need arises, that is, in a confrontation with US forces.

For their part, US commanders welcomed Sadr’s order to “freeze” the militia but also expressed caution over Sadrist intentions and capabilities in making any cease-fire stick, various agencies reported.

Lawless flashpoints

Sadr City, where the Sadrist organization is at its strongest, might be the wrong district to look to for evidence of Mahdi Army disloyalty on the first day of the “freeze.”

As yesterday’s violence reported by Slogger’s sources attests, some of the most likely flashpoints of Mahdi Army “disloyalty” are likely to be in the smoldering turf wars between the Mahdi Army and its rivals, either rival Sunni militias in mixed areas, or rival parties such as the SIIC in Shi'a areas.

The Sunni militants who have been struggling with the Shi'a militia for control of southwest Baghdad for months will have every reason to view the Sadrist cease-fire as an opportunity to be seized.

The inability of the central government and Coalition forces to protect the Shi'a residents of the southwest may leave them once again looking to the Mahdi Army for protection, in the same way that the militia bucked Sadr’s orders in the spring to clash openly with rival Sunni militants in this quarter of the city.

Sunni noncombatants have also been forced to turn to corresponding militant groups for protection from Shi'a militia attacks (or from militia-ridden security forces) – a dynamic that fuels the militias’ rule through parallel protection rackets.

Another place to look for Mahdi Army members to flout Sadr’s orders may be the northern Baghdad district of Shu'la, Slogger’s sources in Baghdad suggest. The militiamen in this working-class district are known for its relative autonomy from the Sadrist offices. As Slogger’s sources reported earlier, the recent clashes in Karbala appear to have been touched off at the beginning by tensions involving the Shu'la branch of the Mahdi Army.

Finally, in areas of eastern Baghdad, Mahdi Army men were indeed out in public, Slogger sources report, though not for combat: Members of the militia participated in funeral services for Baghdad victims of the recent fighting in Karbala.

Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his followers to observe three days of mourning for those killed in the Karbala clashes.

IraqSlogger's network of Iraqi staff contributed to this report, but choose to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Southwestern Baghdad.
Map by Zeyad Kasim.
Southwestern Baghdad.

"Volunteers" Guarded Saddam Palaces; US Skirts Iraqi Law to Form Tribal Forces
09/19/2007 3:56 PM ET
Composite satellite image shows areas in and near southwest Baghdad, on the borders of Baghdad, Anbar, and Babil provinces. Part of urban Baghdad is visibile in the upper right of the frame.
Google Earth image.
Composite satellite image shows areas in and near southwest Baghdad, on the borders of Baghdad, Anbar, and Babil provinces. Part of urban Baghdad is visibile in the upper right of the frame.

All over Iraq’s Sunni Arab areas, “Awakening Councils” and “Salvation Councils” are springing up as local and tribal forces form armed forces, usually with American support and coordination, to combat elements related to al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The practice of US cooperation and support has rankled the Iraqi central government, fearful that the US may be creating Sunni militias who will eventually turn their weapons on the Iraqi government.

While it has been widely acknowledged in the past that members of the new tribal and local forces may have fought against US forces as resistance fighters after the 2003 invasion, the pre-2003 roles of the Americans’ new Sunni allies is rarely discussed.

In a new development, IraqSlogger sources have confirmed that the American military appears to be skirting Iraq’s de-Ba'thification laws – which the Americans were deeply involved in drafting – in order to organize elements of the former regime’s security forces into a paramilitary group that works closely with American soldiers to impose control on the area just southwest of Baghdad.

According to Iraqi sources in and around the Radhwaniya, a Sunni-dominated area near Baghdad airport, local tribes have announced the formation of an armed organization that seeks to wrest control of the Radhwaniya, Duwanim and Ra’y areas from the mix of Sunni militants and al-Qa'id- related forces that have made the areas one of Baghdad’s most dangerous places.

The tribal forces refer to the new council as Sahwat al-Radhwaniya (the “Radhwaniya Awakening”) to combat groups linked to al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), which follows the nomenclature of the “Anbar Awakening,” which also works closely with US forces to combat QAI-linked elements in that province. IraqSlogger sources confirm that this is the same group to which Multinational forces’ press communications refer as “provisional volunteers” in Radhwaniya.

The rural areas of Radhwaniya and Duwanim, near the Baghdad International Airport on the southwest of the city, by the borders of Baghdad, Babil, and Anbar provinces, are known as dangerous places, where the local tribes of Zoba' and Qurtan, and Azza had aligned earlier with AQI-related militants. The rural-urban border between the Radhwaniya and Duwanim areas and Shi'a urban areas in the mixed southwest quadrant of Baghdad have also been the site of an ongoing low-grade conflict between Mahdi Army forces based in the populous Shi'a parts of the mixed southwestern quarter, and the Sunni tribes and AQI forces.

Late 1990s file photo of the Radwaniya presidential palace in Baghdad.
Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty.
Late 1990s file photo of the Radwaniya presidential palace in Baghdad.
While many of the tribesmen who now staff the “Radhwaniya Awakening” are known to be former insurgents, IraqSlogger sources confirm that those participating in the “Radhwaniya Awakening” are also former military and security officers of the disbanded Iraqi forces from the previous regime.

The links of the new tribal forces to the Ba'th party and the former regime’s security forces will not be lost on the Iraq central government, many of whose governing parties have their roots in opposition movements to Ba'th rule in Iraq, and which have been among the most adamantly supportive of the country’s stringent de-Ba'thification laws.

Slogger sources also explain that the Radhwaniya and Duwanim areas are known as strongholds of former regime elements, as many of the elite special forces, officers, and guardsmen who were employed by Saddam to guard his nearby palaces - now under US military control – were recruited from the Azza, Zobaa' and Qurtan tribes of that area.

American role

American forces cooperate closely with the “Radhwaniya Awakening” group, Slogger sources confirm.

Multinational forces’ press releases refer to cooperation with “volunteers” of Iraqi citizens in the Radhwaniya area, and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno told Foreign Policy magazine recently that US forces have “contracted” with locals in the area. The “volunteers” in Radhwaniya were part of 15,000 Iraqis now paid by US battalions in areas around Baghdad, Odierno said. In addition to the forces in Radhwaniya, Odierno listed the Sunni Baghdad districts of areas of Ameriya, Ghazaliya, and Adhamiya, as well as the nearby cites of Taji and Abu Ghraib.

In early September, the MNF released a feature in Arabic, penned by Spec. Ben Washburn, describing cooperation in the Radhwaniya area between the US 1st Infantry Division, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, and local “volunteers,” said by Washburn to be manning checkpoints and contributing tips about explosives caches and IEDs to US forces in the area.

The MNF has released statements featuring cooperation with local “provisional volunteers” in Radhwaniya since at least early August.

The origins and pre-2003 status of many of the local “volunteers,” as confirmed by IraqSlogger sources, were not discussed in MNF communications.

Chalabi’s figures

Ahmad Chalabi, a former US ally, lashed out recently at US forces policies, accusing the Americans of arming and funding former elements of the Ba'thist security forces in Sunni areas of Iraq, mentioning Radhawniya specifically.

Al-Hayat reported in Arabic in early September that Chalabi, head of the de-Ba’thification commission and coordinator of the “popular committees” formed to support the Baghdad security plan, said that a total of 12,000 fighters had been armed in the areas around Baghdad, he added.

Ahmad Chalabi in 2006.
Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty.
Ahmad Chalabi in 2006.
Al-Hayat writes that Chalabi was speaking at a lecture in London. Chalabi did not specify how he had obtained his information, and these figures cannot be confirmed. US officials deny that they are arming Iraqi tribes.

In a report carried by Najaf News online, which appears to refer to the same London lecture, Chalabi said that the US had formed a force of 6,000 fighters in Radhwaniya under the command of a former Iraqi intelligence officer.

Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), formed in opposition to Ba'th party rule in Iraq, also said that each fighter earned 375 dollars per month in exchange for their cooperation with US forces, the report continues in Arabic. There also were approximately 3,000 fighters under the command of a former Republican Guard commander in the Abu Ghraib area, Chalabi added.

The report in Najaf News adds that Chalabi was speaking at the Dar al-Islam Foundation, a Shi'a religious institution in London.

While Chalabi’s figures for troop strength and salary cannot be verified, IraqSlogger sources do confirm his claim that former Ba'th elements are working closely with the Americans in Radhwaniya under the rubric of a Sunni Arab tribal paramilitary.

While the irony of the INC leader, who worked with Western intelligence against the Ba'thists, voicing concern over Ba'thists working with the US military may be rich, Chalabi's warning also elucidates the lukewarm reception that the Iraqi central government has shown for the US policy of faciliating Iraqi Sunni tribal paramilitaries.

If the US were to facilitate the absorption of these individuals into the Iraqi security forces, as it has in other places such as in Anbar province, it would be violating Iraq’s de-Ba'thification laws as they stand on the books.

Shifting militia fault lines near southwest Baghdad

The Radhwaniya area has been a site of shifting alliances and peace pacts in recent months. In the spring Iraqi resistance forces fought with AQI-linked forces in the area. A fragile truce was struck over the summer with Mahdi Army elements in the neighboring Shurta district, but the pact broke down as tribal forces attacked the Mahdi Army strongholds in al-Shurta in late August. The Mahdi Army militia controls the shi'a areas in the fourth and fifth sectors of al-Shurta, and has been engaged in a deadly turf war with the militants that control the Sunni districts in southwestern Baghdad, as well as the tribes and AQI forces based in the rural areas just outside the city. The truce was recently re-brokered, Slogger sources explain, and the main street in the fifth sector of al-Shurta was opened after being closed for more than a year because of the fighting.

However, Slogger sources report that just three days ago, the truce was broken again when an unknown group attacked the house of a member of the Mahdi Army in al-Shurta.

In the aftermath of that most recent attack, members of the “Radhwaniya Awakening” have contacted the Mahdi Army to seek another truce, but the Shi'a militia is demanding a renegotiation of the terms of the deal, locals tell IraqSlogger. Members of IraqSlogger's network of Iraqi staff contributed to this report but choose to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Southwestern Baghdad and nearby rural areas, located between the Tigris River and Bahgdad International Airport.
Map by Zeyad.
Southwestern Baghdad and nearby rural areas, located between the Tigris River and Bahgdad International Airport.

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