A shoot out Sunday in Baghdad indicates U.S. authorities now consider Shia militias a greater
danger than al Qaida. "Deaths from revenge killings now exceed those from terrorist or
anti-government activity," StrategyPage noted Sunday.
The Iraqi government and the U.S. military have issued starkly different accounts of a gunfight
around a mosque in northeast Baghdad that was being used as a headquarters by the Moqtada al
Sadr's militia, the "Mahdi army."
An Interior Ministry spokesman said 22 "bystanders" were killed. An aide to al Sadr said 25
"innocent men" were killed. The dead included the mosque's 80-year-old imam, they said.
Multi-National Force Iraq said Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. troops conducted a raid to
disrupt a terrorist cell. Sixteen "insurgents" were killed, 15 arrested, and a hostage was
"No mosques were entered or damaged in this operation," the MNF-Iraq press release said.
An AP videotape "showed a tangle of dead male bodies with gunshot wounds on the floor of what
was said by the cameraman to be the imam's living quarters, attached to the mosque itself,"
wrote AP reporter Steven Hurst.
A spokesman for the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shia religious parties who hold a
plurality of seats in the Iraqi parliament, denounced what it called the "cold-blooded" killing
of "unarmed" people. Jawad al Maliki demanded that control over all security matters be
restored to the Iraqi government.
Mr. Maliki's demand may have been prompted as much by a raid by U.S. troops Sunday on an
Interior Ministry building where 17 Sudanese were being held. Ten Interior Ministry troops
were detained briefly.
The raids occurred a day after U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged the Iraqi government to
crack down on militias. The Mahdi army, which is financed by Iran, is thought to be
responsible for most of the revenge killings of Sunnis in the wake of the bombing of the Golden
Mosque in Samarra in February.
The news media reported accurately that the gun fight at the mosque was the worst clash with
Sadr's militia in months, but didn't put it into context. It was nothing like August of 2004,
when U.S. troops killed more than 2,000 members of the Mahdi army in battles in Baghdad and
If the Shia militias have become the number one security problem in Iraq, it is less because
the threat they pose has grown than because that posed by Sunni "insurgents" has receded.
If Sunday's moves marked a concerted campaign against radical militias, "this indicates the
U.S. and Iraqi army are calculating there is enough space to open a second front," said
military blogger Bill Roggio.
Back on March 18th, StrategyPage reported that: "the U.S. has told Iran that the Iraqi Shia
militias being supported by Iran (the Badr and Sadr organizations) are going to get taken apart
soon, and Iran is well advised to back off when this happens."
"Al Qaida is beaten, and running for cover," StrategyPage said Sunday. "The Sunni Arab groups
that financed thousands of attacks against the government and coalition groups are now battling
al Qaida, each other, and Shia death squads."
A crackdown on Shia militias poses a huge political problem for Ibrahim al Jaafari, who owes
his nomination by the UIA for a second term as prime minister (he won by a single vote) to the
support of the Moqtada al Sadr. This likely accounts for the harsh rhetoric coming from the
Interior ministry, which is thought to be heavily infilitrated by the Iranian-backed militias.
Shias comprise more than 60 percent of Iraq's population, and a conflict with them would be
disastrous. But while al Jaafari has a problem with the crackdown on militias, other Shias do
not. The Moqtada did not get on the good side of Iraq's most influential cleric, the Ayatollah
Ali al Sistani, when he tried to have Sistani assassinated. In 2004, most residents of Najaf
expressed gratitude to U.S. troops for liberating them from the Mahdi army's brief occupation
of their town.
"Iraqi Shia Arabs fought against Iran during the 1980s war, not because they loved Saddam, but
because they feared Iranian domination," StrategyPage said. "The Sadr and Badr groups are
vulnerable in this area."
The Iraqi officials who criticized Sunday's raids are allies of al Jaafari. The incidents may
break the deadlock over the formation of a new Iraqi government, by causing the single largest
group in the UIA, the SCIRI, to break away and join Kurds, Sunnis, and secular Shia parties in
making SCIRI leader Abdel Mahdi prime minister.
"One has to wonder if that wasn't by design," Bill Roggio said. "The Coalition has been
telegraphing this move for some time."