10 years ago
Smoke rises over Haifa street in the heart of Baghdad as U.S. and Iraqi forces launch Operation Tomahawk Strike II
On Wednesday, January 24, at 0500 hours, U.S. and Iraqi forces moved into Haifa street, a Sunni stronghold, in the third attempt this month to rid the area of insurgents who have been perpetrating violence on residents of the area. The operation involved Apache attack helicopters and armored vehicles, while insurgents fought back with RPGs and small arms fire. Coalition forces quickly positioned men on rooftops to battle insurgents who were also firing from elevated positions in buildings. The Iraqi Defense Ministry said 30 insurgents were killed and 27 captured, including four Egyptians and a Sudanese. Insurgent weapons caches were discovered and confiscated. Haifa has been the site of repeated clashes, including a major battle January 9, just three days after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced his new security plan for pacifying Baghdad. Fighting broke out again about a week later.
This same operation involved ‘raiding’ over 1400 houses and clearing them of any weapons found in them. In fact, reminding us of concerns associated with completely disarming the public in a sectarian conflict, residents of the largely Sunni area fear that such raids and arms-confiscations leave them helpless against potential attacks by ‘militias’ against their district. A block has now been evacuated of its inhabitants and will serve as a U.S. outpost for neighborhood protection.
Moqtada al Sadr is under pressure, as Mahdi army members in detention now stand at 600. There are signs that al Sadr might be willing to allow coalition forces to target some of the more rogue elements of the Mahdi army, while he and his loyal followers rejoin the political scene. The Iraqi administration is concerned about just such an exigency.
“We will have to wait and see what happens, but I believe that recent trends . . . [are] more positive than in the past,” Khalilzad said. “But there is ongoing concern about death squad activities, about the future of the militias, concern that they might be lying low, avoiding a conflict now, in order to fight another day.”
Speaking at the embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Khalilzad questioned whether radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the powerful Mahdi Army militia, was sincere in his appeals to end the violence. “Is it a change of tactic or is it a change of heart?”
But at the same time that Khalilzad expresses concern over the political tactics employed by the Mahdi army (and whether they may be around in strengthened form by laying low and avoiding direct conflict with coalition forces over the next several months), he equivocates when considering the possibility of a temporary truce with the Sadrists. According to an unnamed senior Iraqi official, contacts between the mayor of the area, Rahim al-Daraji, and a British general might have averted a major military offensive in the district of two million inhabitants. The demands include increasing police presence in Sadr City, bringing more jobs and construction projects to the areas, and releasing prisoners in US and Iraqi custody. US ambassador Khalilzad has signaled that such a mutual understanding has not been cemented, but could be possible.
U.S. forces attempted to make it clear from the beginning of this operation that Sunnis were not the sole target of coalition forces. In what is becoming an odd practice for MNF press releases (i.e., communicating motive), it was stated that “the mission is not designed to solely (sic) target Sunni insurgents, but rather is aimed at rapidly isolating insurgents and gaining control of this key central Baghdad location.”
Parliamentary wranglings over Maliki’s plan to bring security have been rather extreme (although perhaps not as bad as the fist fights in the South Korean Parliament), with Sunnis protesting that Sunnis have been targeted, and the Sadrists protesting at the arrest at some of their colleagues, and much yelling and screaming before it was all over with. In the end, Maliki’s plan was unanimously endorsed by Parliament.
In The Enemy Reacts to “The Surge,” it was pointed out that al Sadr might be positioning himself to lay low until U.S. force size diminishes in the coming months. Khalilzad has the same concern, yet talks of “mutual understanding” when asked about a potential deal with the Sadrists. The AQI and AAS insurgency might be defeated. But will the U.S. win in Iraq in a manner that prevents the empowerment of Iran and the Shi’ite majority in Iraq … feeding the Shia giant-in-the-making and thereby putting the entire Middle East out of balance? The insurgency includes more than just AQI and AAS. The Mahdi army and the Badr Brigade are far more formidable than the remnants of the Sunni insurgency.
The question is this: just how long is Haifa street? Does it wind through the Shi’ite neighborhoods, extending to the doorsteps of Moqtada al Sadr’s house?