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BAGHDAD, Iraq - Mahdi Army fighters said Thursday they were under siege in their Sadr City stronghold as U.S. and Iraqi troops killed or seized key commanders in pinpoint nighttime raids. Two commanders of the Shiite militia said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stopped protecting the group under pressure from Washington and threats from Sunni Muslim Arab governments.
The two commanders' account 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 back 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.
During much of his nearly eight months in office, al-Maliki has blocked or ordered an end to many U.S.-led operations against the Mahdi Army, which is run by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the prime minister's key political backer.
As recently as Oct. 31, al-Maliki, trying to capitalize on American voter discontent with the war and White House reluctance to open a public fight with the Iraqi leader just before the election, won U.S. agreement to lift military blockades on Sadr City and another Shiite enclave where an American soldier was abducted.
But al-Maliki reportedly had a change of heart in late November while going into a meeting in Jordan with President Bush. It has since been disclosed that the Iraqi leader's vision for a new security plan for Baghdad, to which Bush has committed 17,500 additional U.S. troops, was outlined in that meeting.
Al-Maliki is said by aides to have told Bush that he wanted the Iraqi army and police to be in the lead, but he would no longer interfere to prevent U.S. attempts to roll up the Mahdi Army.
He was very lucky to make it out of that alive and a free man
The June settlement was broken after Iraqi policemen and U.S. troops surrounded al-Sadr's home on 3 August, resulting in heavy gunfire, mortar shelling and grenade blasts. The apparent aim was to arrest al-Sadr and destroy his movement. The decision to extend a firefight into extended combat is reported to have been made by U.S. Marines, without the approval of the Pentagon or the Allawi government.
On August 5, via his spokesman Ahmed al-Shaibany, al-Sadr reaffirmed his commitment to the truce and called on U.S. forces to honor the truce. He announced that if the restoration of the ceasefire failed "then the firing and igniting of the revolution will continue." The offer was rejected by the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi ("There is no compromise or room for another truce") and U.S. officials ("This is one battle we really do feel we can win")