Mahdi Army Buckles in Sadr City

Rumors of an impending cease-fire agreement between the Iraqi government and Mahdi Army fighters loyal to Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr kicked into overdrive on Friday morning, with an Arab-language newspaper announcing that it had inside information on the near-finalization of a “deal between the Iraqi government and the Mahdi Army or the Sadrist leadership, to which the militia is linked.” If actually implemented, the impending cease-fire, which the Iraqi press outlet learned about via “an exclusive interview with sources close to the Sadrist Current,” would have ended weeks of intense fighting, which seen massively disproportionate losses on the part of the Mahdi militiamen, in the district northeast of Baghdad known as Sadr City.

Over the weekend, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh and Sadrist spokesman Sheikh Salih al Ubaydi confirmed that such an accord had, in fact, been reached between Sadrist leaders and the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

This agreement marks the latest in a long series of cease-fire declarations on the part of Sadr and his militia, who, like a schoolyard bully who runs away right when a teacher is about to arrive, always seem to think better of their low-intensity offensives right when they are about to have the hammer dropped on them by the U.S. and Iraqi militaries. Before this weekend, the last cease-fire Sadr declared came just as Iraqi Army and police reinforcements began to arrive in Basra. Rather than risk open conflict with trained and skilled regular forces, Sadr called for his fighters to put down their weapons until further notice.

However, one major detail reported by the oft-incorrect McClatchy newspaper bureau, and still being claimed by Sadrist spokesmen, appears to have been inaccurate. The impending accord, which would have allowed Iraqi security forces (ISF) access to the city without armed resistance from the Sadrists, was rumored — and reported — to include the stipulation that coalition troops would be banned from the city for the duration of the agreement.

This would have been a major concession, as support from U.S. forces, including special operations forces, has been instrumental in the Iraqi military’s efforts to combat Mahdi fighters and provide security and humanitarian assistance for the district’s residents. Coalition forces have also played a major role in the ongoing construction of a concrete barrier which would separate the Iraqi-controlled southern third of Sadr City from the Mahdi-dominated northern remainder, largely by providing security for the engineering operation, which has become a “magnet” for attacks by Mahdi fighters trying to prevent the loss of militia access to the southern portion of the district.

This latest call for temporary peace — and the demand that the U.S. military be barred from entering Sadr City — comes on the heels of Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I)’s publication of the fact that coalition special forces units are operating in the Mahdi stronghold.

The fact that they are in Sadr City is not exactly new news. SOF units are operating throughout the country, especially in the more volatile areas. However, the military announcement that SOF operations are ongoing there was made for one reason: to elicit a reaction from the leaders of the Sadrist militia. Fear is a powerful motivator, and few fighters have a suicidal desire to engage in open combat with coalition or Iraqi SOF units.

The hasty push for a cease-fire agreement so closely following the publication of SOF operations makes it appear that this public relations strategy was successful.

Though the agreement reached between the Sadrist political leaders and the Maliki government did not include a requirement “for the Mahdi Army to fully disarm, as [Maliki] had insisted since the conflict began on March 25,” according to the Long War Journal, it will “allow for the Iraqi military to operate freely inside Sadr City while the Mahdi Army must halt its fighting.”

According to the terms of the agreement, a four-day ceasefire will be observed, after which Iraqi forces will be allowed to enter Sadr City to conduct arrests for which warrants have been issued, and to disarm any Mahdi fighters foolish enough to be caught with medium or heavy weapons (such as rocket-propelled grenades or mortars) after the four-day grace period they have to hide or dispose of them.

Among other concessions granted by Sadrist leaders, the agreement includes a requirement that the Mahdi Army and Sadrist political leaders “recognize the Iraqi government has control over the security situation and has the authority to move security forces to impose the law” — a potentially major step forward for a district that has largely been out of governmental control since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The settlement also includes a requirement that Mahdi fighters clear Sadr City of all IEDs (improvised explosive devices) — a major point for the safety of coalition and Iraqi soldiers, as the majority of IEDs employed in Sadr City are Iranian-supplied EFPs (explosively-formed penetrators), the number one killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Sadrist spokesmen are still claiming that the settlement includes a stipulation barring U.S. forces from entering Sadr City; however the Iraqi government has refused to confirm this.
Coalition security operations in the district have continued in the 48 hours since the agreement was signed, with nearly two dozen Mahdi fighters being killed by ground and air forces in response to their active continuation of EFP emplacement and repeated attacks on the barrier construction project which, according to Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, the chief Public Affairs Officer for Multinational Division Baghdad, “is ongoing and about 80 percent complete."

Given the recent volatility of Sadr City, an honored cease-fire in the area would be a very positive development. However, any agreement involving the Mahdi Army and Sadrist leaders must be taken with several grains of salt, given their history of unilaterally declaring hollow and quickly-broken truces. Coalition leaders are curbing their enthusiasm for the newly-inked accord until they see evidence that the Mahdi fighters on the ground actually intend to adhere to the accord that their leaders have entered into — and, as mentioned above, the beginning of the mandated four-day armistice does not appear to be proceeding according to the leaders’ agreement.

"Seeing as how the Special Groups (subsets of the Mahdi Army and other terrorist groups) never listened to [Sadr] to begin with, I don’t see how things will change," said Stover — and, so far, he appears to be correct.

Regardless of the outcome of this specific truce agreement one positive can be taken from this series of events: given the rapidity with which these calls for truce have come, first in Basra and now in Sadr City, it appears that the Iraqi government, with armed support from the coalition, is beginning to act more decisively and more effectively.