BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – 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 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.