- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

BAGHDAD — Mahdi Army fighters said yesterday they were under siege in their Sadr City stronghold as U.S. and Iraqi troops killed or seized key commanders in nighttime raids. Two commanders of the Shi’ite militia said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stopped protecting the group under pressure from Washington and threats from Sunni Muslim Arab governments.

The commanders’ accounts of a growing siege mentality inside the organization could represent a tactical and propaganda feint, but there was mounting evidence the militia was increasingly off balance and had ordered its gunmen to melt into the population. To avoid capture, commanders report no longer using cell phones and fighters are removing their black uniforms and hiding their weapons during the day.

Violence continued in Baghdad yesterday, claiming 59 lives, including 10 from a triple car bombing at a vegetable market.

An al Qaeda-linked coalition of Iraqi Sunni insurgents claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. The attack Wednesday killed Andrea Parhamovich, 28, of Perry, Ohio, and three security contractors from Hungary, Croatia and Iraq.

During much of his nearly eight months in office, Mr. al-Maliki has blocked or ordered an end to many U.S.-led operations against the Mahdi Army, which is run by radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the prime minister’s key political backer. But he reportedly had a change of heart in late November while going into a meeting in Jordan with President Bush.

Yesterday, Mr. al-Maliki said the U.S. plan to send more troops into Baghdad could “drastically improve” the situation there, but complained that Washington has not provided Iraqi forces with adequate equipment, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported.

“The situation would be much better if the United States had immediately sent our security forces more adequate weapons and equipment. If they had committed themselves more and with greater speed, we would have had a lot fewer deaths among Iraqi civilians and American soldiers,” the newspaper quoted Mr. al-Maliki as saying.

According to the newspaper Mr. al-Maliki also struck back at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for suggesting he was in a weak position and on borrowed time — a remark Miss Rice yesterday regretted as a translation error.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the interpretation of the prime minister’s comments as criticism of the Bush administration was “baseless.”

Mr. al-Maliki is said by aides to have told Mr. Bush in Jordan that he wanted the Iraqi army and police to be in the lead, but he would no longer prevent U.S. attempts to roll up the Mahdi Army.

On Wednesday, the prime minister said 400 Mahdi Army fighters had been detained in recent months, although an exact time frame was not given.

The midlevel Mahdi Army commanders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the group operates in secret, said at least five top commanders were captured or killed in recent months, including one snatched in a night raid from his Sadr City hide-out on Tuesday. They refused to name him.

Two other key officials at the top of the organization were killed in raids last month:

• Sahib al-Amiri, a senior al-Sadr military aide, was slain by American forces in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf on Dec. 27. The U.S. military reported his death, calling him a criminal involved in roadside bombings. Sheik al-Sadr lives in Najaf.

c The other top commander, identified by a third Mahdi Army commander as Abu al-Sudour, was fatally shot in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid last month. He was hunted down in Sadr City.

The third commander, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said U.S.-led raiding parties were engaged in massive sweeps, having rounded up what he said was every male old enough to carry a gun in south Baghdad’s Um al-Maalef neighborhood Tuesday night.

There has been so much advance publicity about the coming security plan that the militant targets of the operation — both Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militiamen — have had ample warning. One Mahdi Army commander said the early warning was not ignored.

“Our top leadership has told us to lay low and not confront the Americans. But if Sadr City is attacked, if civilians are hurt, we will ignore those orders and take matters in our own hands. We won’t need orders from Sheik Muqtada [al-Sadr],” the midlevel commander said.

Others in the organization said street fighters have been told not to wear their black uniforms and to hide their weapons, to make their checkpoints less visible. Reports from the growing number of neighborhoods controlled by the militias indicate fighters are obeying.

The Mahdi Army commanders said they were increasingly concerned about improved U.S. intelligence that has allowed the Americans to successfully target key figures in the militia.

“We’re no longer using cell phones except in emergencies. Some of our top commanders have not been home [in Sadr City] for a year because they fear capture,” one of the commanders said.

The militiamen said Sheik al-Sadr himself had apparently gotten wind of the coming assault and ordered a reshuffling of the Mahdi Army command structure, transferring many leaders to new districts and firing others whose loyalty was suspect.

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