As Iraqi and US forces braced for a major battle to cleanse Sadr City of Shiite militias and death squads, their reconnaissance and informers noticed that the commanders of Moqtada Sadr‘s Mehdi Army were melting away from the slum of 2.5 million Shiites.
Thursday night, the Mehdi Army reported that US and Iraqi troops had killed or seized key commanders in raids of Sadr City, in apparent attempts to seize prisoners and interrogate them on the state of affairs in the militia’s strongholds.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report three further significant – albeit puzzling – developments:
1. One group of the departing Shiite commanders left Iraq altogether and traveled to Iran. The US command and intelligence leaders cannot decide why they have left, whether for consultations in Tehran with the Revolutionary Guards officers who sponsor the Mehdi Army or for temporary asylum pending new orders.
2. Another group has headed south to the big Shiite cities of Karbala, Najef and Kufa. This too is disturbingly mystifying; they may or may not be leading the way for their troops to join them and escape confronting Iraqi and US soldiers in combat in Baghdad.
3. The clearest signal that these outward movements by Sadrist commanders are not meant as decoys but are in keeping with a tactical decision by their leader to pull back from a military showdown with the Americans in Baghdad is to found in the directives Sadr issued to his men on Jan. 15. He ordered them –
- On no account to stand up and fight the Americans if they raid Sadr City;
- Not to give up their weapons but to put them in accessible hiding places.
- To bend their heads to avoid confrontation with any American or Iraqi military element. This is only a passing storm, says Moqtada Sar. In other words, the Sadr militia is not rescinding control of Sadr City or Baghdad, just stepping aside and biding its time until the storm passes.
- Not to resist arrest by American forces. They will be set free in good time by the Iraqi police.
- This directive is proof of the radical cleric’s dominant influence in the Iraqi government’s police and security forces; it means that the Shiite factions do not really believe that prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Americans can make their crackdown work in Baghdad.
Is Moqtada Sadr trying to outfox the Americans?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that at his secret meetings in the last ten days with the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najef and prime minister al-Maliki,
the radical Shiite militia chief stated he had no intention at this stage of clashing with the US forces building up in the capital.
Still, in the US Baghdad command and Washington, opinion is divided over his intentions. Some voices in the White House and Pentagon maintain that the big battle for Baghdad has been called off; others that it has only been postponed. Sadr may have decided to hold his fire for some months until the US and Iraqi forces streaming to Baghdad tire and depart. He will then order his militia to collect their guns and recapture choice sections of the capital, restoring the situation to what it was before.
Other voices, especially in the US intelligence community, detect a ruse. Seeing the Shiite militias are out of the way, the Americans are expected to turn their energies to quelling Sunni Arab insurgents. Once this is accomplished, and the Americans have left, Moqtada Sadr’s force can return to Baghdad and destroy the defenseless Sunni Arab population.
As these conjectures go back and forth, reinforced US and Iraqi contingents are piling up in Baghdad.
This week, three Shiite brigades arrived from southern Iraq. At Mahmudiya, 30 miles south of the capital, they were given air cover by American drones, warplanes and helicopters.
Three Kurdish brigades are heading for Baghdad, the Scorpion, the Hussein and the Carera. The Kurdish leaders’ consent to provide these brigades for the Baghdad offensive was obtained by Barham Salah, former deputy prime minister and national security adviser in the Iyad Allawi administration.
The Kurds also agreed to send two peshmerga brigades subject to the consent of the Shiite SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.
The first Kurdish units to enter Baghdad are members of the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Division, under the command of Brig. Gen Anwar Golani. They first underwent specialized training at a base in western Baghdad under US supervision.
The American command is aiming for a total of 30,000 Iraqi troops in Baghdad.
Americans weed out militiamen from Iraqi security rolls
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal here the shape of the US deployment for the campaign to bring security to Baghdad.
It is seen as the key to the failure or success of President George W. Bush‘s new strategy for Iraq.
Thirteen Iraqi divisions will be positioned in Baghdad, divided into 41 brigades and 132 battalions. According to our sources, they will not be fully staffed divisions or battalions but smaller contingents whose size will depend on the risks posed and security needs in each individual sector.
Every Baghdad district will have its own battalion, whose members will take up residence there.
The American forces, together with the commando units of the Iraqi interior minister’s command units, known as Maghawir, will be sent to the most problematical parts of the capital, such as the strongholds of the Sadrists.
All the units, Iraqi and American, will operate under an Iraqi supreme commander. Our sources name him as the Shiite Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, who fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and was taken prisoner by the Americans in the first Gulf war. Politically and religiously, he is a Sadrist, but is not a follower of Moqtdada Sadr. One of his two deputies is a Kurd and the other a Sunni Muslim.
American intelligence officers have also begun purging Iraqi military, police, intelligence and security forces in Baghdad of elements who collaborate with the Shiite and the Sunni militias. This is done not by military means but by administratively measures to sever these elements from their logistical support systems and paymasters.
They estimate that of some 40,000 Iraqi security officers and troops on the government payroll, 50-60% are either absentees or members of anti-US militias.
So far, US intelligence officers have managed to weed out 10,000 of these names from the rolls of recipients of Iraqi government paychecks and equipment.