U.S. Deploys a Purpose-Driven Distinction

Reluctance to Identify Foes as Sadrists Reflects View of Iran and Fragility of Security Gains

Scenes from the ground in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, where Washington Post reporter Amit Paley embedded with U.S. troops. Video by Amit Paley/The Washington Post, Editor: Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
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.

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