By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
BAGHDAD -- As the bullets whizzed past 1st Lt. Ben Hartig earlier this month, he scrambled for cover and glanced up at a giant Sadr City billboard of the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"We've killed so many of his Mahdi Army militia guys, but they just keep shooting and shooting," yelled Hartig, 23, of Concord, Calif., as he struggled to be heard over the cacophony of Bradley Fighting Vehicles firing back with 25mm cannons. "Sadr is a really tough enemy."
Not officially. In Washington and in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, American military and diplomatic officials have rarely mentioned Sadr and his militia when describing their enemy. Instead, U.S. troops have clashed with "criminal elements" or "special groups," a phrase used by the military to refer to Iranian-backed fighters.
But according to U.S. infantry soldiers, Mahdi Army fighters and the American brigade commander here, much of the recent fighting in Sadr City has pitted militiamen loyal to Sadr against the U.S. and Iraqi militaries. On Tuesday, thousands of Iraqi troops moved into the district without any significant opposition from the militia.
The delicacy of the U.S. terminology underscores both the fragility of the security gains in Iraq and the U.S. government's efforts to tie Iran to the ongoing violence. American officials worry that if they provoke Sadr, he could call off the nine-month-old cease-fire that is credited as one of the main reasons for the drop in violence. At the same time, tying the fighters to Iran bolsters the American case that the Iranian government is subverting U.S. interests throughout the Middle East.
For U.S. soldiers involved in the clashes, the battle has been more straightforward.
"Of course we're fighting JAM," said Col. John Hort, the commander of the brigade in Sadr City, referring to Jaish al-Mahdi, which is Arabic for Mahdi Army. "There are hundreds of them throughout Sadr City, and we'll keep up the fight against them until they stop attacking us."
In the view of U.S. officials, every bona fide member of the Mahdi Army is obeying Sadr's cease-fire, and any member fighting U.S. or Iraqi troops is by definition violating his leader's order and therefore a rogue element. Senior U.S. military commanders said they were targeting only those rogue elements, whom they refer to either as special groups or simply criminals.
Yet that distinction does not account for a man who has been one of the U.S. military's top targets in Sadr City: Tahseen al-Freiji, the senior Mahdi Army commander in the enclave. Hort said the goal was to remove Freiji and other top targets as threats, either by detaining or killing them.
Hort and other officials describe Freiji, believed to be in his late 30s, as "mainstream JAM." They said that the U.S. military initially targeted him in 2006 and 2007 for his role in sectarian attacks on Sunnis but that he was taken off the list of targets after he heeded Sadr's cease-fire last August. In March, though, he resumed his attacks after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra and later in Sadr City.
U.S. officials said that Freiji commands a full brigade in Sadr City, directing 6,000 to 8,000 men. They said he has given orders to launch rockets and mortar shells; fire rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles; and set roadside bombs, including powerful ones known as explosively formed penetrators that the U.S. military has said are supplied by Iran.
Mahdi Army leaders in Sadr City and the southern holy city of Najaf confirmed that Freiji is the top commander in the Baghdad enclave and receives his orders directly from senior Sadrist leaders in Najaf. They denied, however, that he and other fighters received support from Iran.
"He is not just a fighter, but a social and political leader," said Salam al-Maliki, 40, a Mahdi Army leader in Sadr City. "You can say he is like a tribal chief. He was basically the government security system when there was no government."
Freiji operated command centers next to both of the major hospitals in Sadr City, including a structure in the median of the road next to Sadr Hospital that U.S. military officials nicknamed "Tahseen's trailer," said Maj. Bryan Gibby, the intelligence officer for the brigade, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
The U.S. military struck the site with missiles about 10 a.m. on the morning of May 3. The statement disclosing the attack identified the targets as "criminal elements."
The strike killed or wounded several Mahdi Army commanders, including a top lieutenant to Freiji named Arkan Muhammad Ali al-Hasnawi, Gibby said. Hasnawi, whose death was confirmed by Mahdi Army leaders, was responsible for the kidnapping of eight tribal leaders last October, in addition to multiple rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops, U.S. officials said.
Hasnawi, 35, joined Sadr's militia in 2003 and battled American forces in Najaf in 2004 and Sunni insurgents in recent years, according to Jamal al-Harmoushy, a Mahdi Army commander in the southern city of Kufa. "He was devoted and extremely obedient to Moqtada al-Sadr," Harmoushy said.
U.S. military commanders in Sadr City acknowledged that even leaders of so-called special groups have close ties to mainstream Mahdi Army leaders and top Sadr aides.
"The special groups all have direct communication with OMS," said Capt. Ron Underwood, an intelligence officer with the unit responsible for southeastern Sadr City, using a U.S. military abbreviation for the office of Moqtada al-Sadr.
U.S. military officials said the top special groups leader in Sadr City is Mahdi Khaddam Alawi al-Zirjawi. They said Zirjawi, whose noms de guerre are Abu Ahmad and Abu Rayna, had traveled to Iran several times for training by Iranian agents and by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement backed by Iran.
"In terms of public enemy number one in Sadr City, it's Haji Mahdi," said Gibby, referring to Zirjawi with an honorific signifying that a person has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Gibby said Zirjawi still reports to Sadr. "Sadr has not repudiated him. Haji Mahdi fits in the organization," he said. "I think OMS leaders are comfortable with him."
U.S. officials described a list of top special groups targets who they said had all been trained in Iran, although Mahdi Army leaders said none of them were rogue elements but rather Mahdi Army commanders who report directly to Sadr. The leaders also denied that any of them received funding or assistance from Iran, saying the U.S. military was trying to undermine the Mahdi Army's reputation as a nationalist movement.
There was Baqir al-Saidi, who was responsible for the kidnapping of five British contractors last year, according to U.S. officials. A member of a prominent Shiite family, Saidi had been in Iran as recently as February and had been considering fleeing there in the past few days to evade capture, the officials said.
There was Jawad Kazim al-Tulaybani, a rocket and mortar specialist who carried out a rocket attack on a U.S. outpost last month that left 15 soldiers wounded, U.S. officials said. A veteran of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Tulaybani is said to walk with a limp caused by a leg injury.
And there was Ismail Hafiz al-Atawi, known as Abu Dure, feared throughout the capital for sectarian attacks on Sunnis.
"All those great military leaders are under the command of Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr," said a senior aide to Sadr, using an honorific for the cleric and speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. "They will continue fighting for Sayyid Moqtada until the last American is driven out of our country."
Sadr's followers are supposed to be observing the cease-fire he imposed last year, which the U.S. command has said is still in effect. But that's not the way it has seemed to soldiers in Sadr City. "I don't think there's a cease-fire," said Lt. Col. Dan Barnett, commander of the 1st Squadron of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, the unit responsible for southeastern Sadr City.
Some of the statements from Sadr are so vague it is hard to tell whether they condone violence against U.S. troops or not. In interviews, Mahdi Army commanders said the cease-fire allows them to fight Americans in Sadr City as a form of self-defense. Under those conditions, Barnett said, the U.S. military's official distinction between special groups and the mainstream Mahdi Army has been maddening. "You can't really compartmentalize," said Barnett, of Willard, Ohio. "What are the special groups? You just don't know if it's a covert JAM organization or a separate organization."
Sitting in the back of his Stryker armored vehicle on a recent afternoon, Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Arambula compared what he had seen during a month and a half of sharp clashes in Sadr City with what he saw in Najaf in 2004, when U.S. and Mahdi Army forces engaged in ferocious fighting.
"It's the same guys," said Arambula, 28, of Dallas. "The only difference is that now their weapons are a lot more sophisticated and their bombs are a lot bigger."
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.