Operation in Sadr city is an Iraqi success, so far
BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces rolled unopposed through the huge Shiite enclave of Sadr City on Tuesday, a dramatic turnaround from the bitter fighting that has plagued the Baghdad neighborhood for two months, and a qualified success for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
As it did in the southern city of Basra last month, the Iraqi government advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militias.
This was a hopeful accomplishment, but one that came with caveats: In both cities, the militias eventually melted away in the face of Iraqi troops backed by American firepower. Thus nobody can say just where the militias might re-emerge or when Iraqi and American forces might need to fight them again.
By late Tuesday, Iraqi troops had pushed deep into the district and set up positions around hospitals and police stations, which the Iraqi government was seeking to bring under its control.
The main military question now is whether Iraqi soldiers can solidify their hold over Sadr City in the coming days. And the main political one is whether the Maliki government will cement its gains by carrying out its long-promised, multimillion dollar program of economic assistance and job creation to win over a still wary population and erode the militias' base of support.
Sadr City has long been a simmering trouble spot, a haven for Shiite militias and a conduit for what American commanders say are Iranian-supplied arms, including explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb.
In the past two months, it has also become a test of the government's ability to find its footing in the slippery terrain of Middle Eastern Shiite politics and internal divisions among Iraq's governing Shiite parties.
The recent fighting flared up in late March after Maliki sent troops to gain control of the port city of Basra. Shiite militants responded by taking over Iraqi Army checkpoints on the outskirts of Sadr City and using the neighborhood as a launching pad to fire rockets at the Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government and site of the United States Embassy.
American and Iraqi forces had little choice but to fight their way in to suppress the rocket fire. They pushed their way to Al Quds Street, which gave them a measure of control over the southern quarter of Sadr City. A massive concrete wall was erected along the thoroughfare to try to keep the militants out.
But that still left most of Sadr City in the hands of Shiite militias, who continued to lob rockets at the Green Zone and attack the Iraqi and American troops in the neighborhood's southern tier.
Prime Minister Maliki had responded to a challenge from Shiite militias in Basra by mounting a hasty operation. The military campaign caught American officials by surprise and appeared to sputter at the start as the Iraqi forces faced logistical problems and more than a thousand deserted.
But as the Basra operation proceeded and Iraqi troops began to pour into the city, militia commanders drifted away. Maliki was strengthened politically in his drive to shape an image as a strong and decisive leader, the kind of leader many Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite, think is needed to control the country.
Emboldened by the outcome in Basra, the prime minister wanted to act quickly against the militias in Sadr City as well, according to American and Iraqi officials. He was inclined to see the struggle as a test of wills, which he could win by striking a decisive blow, the officials said
Iraqi and Americans commanders, chastened by the stumbling first week of the Basra operation, favored a more deliberate approach. Sadr City is a densely populated neighborhood of more than two million, a bastion of support for Moktada al-Sadr, the radical cleric, and a neighborhood with a resilient collection of militia cells adept at hiding among the population. With operations in Basra, Mosul and other parts of Iraq, the Iraqi military was stretched.
Additional forces were brought in, including the Third Brigade of the First Iraqi Army Division, a quick reaction force from Anbar Province. Lieutenant General Abud Qanbar, the commander of Iraqi forces in Baghdad, developed a plan to advance north into the heart of Sadr City.
The military preparations appeared to be serious, a fact that loomed large for leaders of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, who told one reporter last week that the militia was convinced military operations were imminent.
Major General Mizher al-Azawi, the commander of the 11th Iraqi Army Division, said that the operation would be carried out by Iraqi ground forces with the support of American airpower.
But for all the talk by Iraqi government officials about breaking the back of the militias, and the militants' bluster about defending their turf, it was clear that each side had much to lose if they were unable to reach an accommodation, however temporary or expedient.
Had it come to an urban battle in the densely populated Shiite enclave the Iraqi government, backed by American force, would probably have prevailed. But Iraqi troops would have suffered casualties. Shiite civilians would have been caught in the cross-fire and further alienated from the government. And eventually the Shiite militias, who had already suffered considerable losses, would have been further depleted.
Certainly, a military offensive would not have been a simple operation. The militias had been significantly weakened over the previous two months of fighting. Colonel John Hort, the commander of the Third Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, estimated that some 700 militia fighters had been killed by air and ground fire since fighting erupted in late March.
"It is pretty safe to say that we have killed the equivalent of a U.S. battalion," he said in a recent interview.
Some Mahdi Army leaders put the death toll slightly higher. When the truce was first announced, they threatened to refuse Sadr's order to stand down. "What about the martyrs?" a Mahdi battalion leader recently told a reporter. "A thousand martyrs, what did they die for?"
Still, the area directly north of Al Quds Street was believed to have had a heavy concentration of roadside bombs, presenting a substantial challenge for an Iraqi force. Combat engineers and explosive ordnance disposal teams are in short supply in the Iraqi military, which relies heavily on using sappers to cut the wires rigged to explosives.
A Sadr City battle would also have sent Iraqi forces into one of the most heavily populated sections of Baghdad where there were ample opportunities for ambushes. Militia snipers have already taken a toll on Iraqi troops with powerful .50-caliber rifles.
There were other threats, as well. In at least one instance that has not been previously disclosed, an American M-1 tank was damaged by an RPG-29, an advanced anti-tank weapon. Even less powerful types of rocket-propelled grenades could pose a threat to some Iraqi vehicles, which are generally less heavily armored than those employed by the Americans.
While the planning continued, American military officials cited reports that Mahdi Army and Iranian-backed commanders were sneaking out of Sadr City and perhaps even Iraq. People close to Mahdi leaders in Sadr City said they knew some who were leaving for Lebanon by way of Iran.
"We have seen a lot of indications that some of the senior leaders within JAM and the Special Groups are preparing to leave or have already left Sadr City," Hort said last week, referring to Jaysh al Mahdi, as the Mahdi Army is known, and the Iranian-backed militias the military refers to as Special Groups.
Iran, according to some western analysts, was also focusing on developments in Lebanon, where it has been supporting the militant group Hezbollah, and seemed interested in an arrangement in which the groups it backs in Sadr City would withdraw to fight another day.
With the emergence of a political accord, the Iraqi military began to develop a new plan, which American officers learned about late last week. It assumed that Iraqi troops would be welcomed, or at least tolerated, by the residents. Instead of an assault through the roadside bombs, six battalions would drive in on parallel streets and set up checkpoints and search for weapons.
That plan was carried out on Tuesday and was uncontested.
So far, the Iraqi Army has been a winner. Iraqi commanders received, and sometimes rejected, advice from the American military. But in the end they were able to execute a plan that was very much their own.
Only two dozen or so roadside bombs were reported found, however, raising a question of whether others had been hidden by the militias for another day. Nor is it clear how energetic Iraqi soldiers will be in carrying out searches in a Mahdi Army stronghold.
Brigadier General Daniel Allyn, the chief of staff for the Multinational Corps in Iraq, said the Iraqi government had considered various factors.
"When you exert lethal actions against Sadr City you are de facto going against a fairly poor sector of the Shia populace," he said. "So that is a dynamic that the government of Iraq has to keep in their analysis about what is the right way to deal with this, and we believe a measured approach is appropriate."