U.S., Iraqi forces meet no Sadr resistance in Amara
Iraqi troops took the southern city without a shot being fired from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
In recent months, Moqtada al-Sadr's forces have fiercely battled Iraqi and US troops in Basra and Sadr City. But this time, in the southern Iraqi city of Amara, the Shiite cleric ordered a tactical retreat.Skip to next paragraph
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A major Iraqi-US mission to clear Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army out of one of its last supposed sanctuaries began here late last week but was met with no resistance.
Sadr – and his most trusted lieutenants, who visited Amara last week – called for restraint. He announced that an elite faction of his militia will still fight US troops while the rest would dedicate themselves to the betterment of society through peaceful means.
"This will preserve the [Mahdi] Army's pristine reputation and ensure that the resistance continues," said Sadr in a statement before the beginning of the operation, in effect altering the terms of an earlier freeze on the activities of his militia.
Sadr appears to be resorting to a strategy that has served him well in the past and kept everyone guessing about his true motives, say analysts.
"He's playing the survival game," says Mustafa al-Ani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, a nonprofit think tank. "He understands there is no sympathy for the undisciplined members of his group."
These maneuvers have been seen before in previous battles with US troops and when Sadr's movement was bogged down in sectarian warfare and intra-Shiite struggles or itself besieged by infiltration and divisions. It involves backing off and regrouping to preserve his resources and most important asset: support of the Shiite masses. But Sadr appears to be going back to basics to recapture the essence of a movement that relies on the poor, dispossessed, and oppressed in the south and in the slums of Baghdad and those who are resolutely against the US presence in Iraq.
"They may control the provincial governments but for sure they will never win over the hearts of the people, which are with us," says Sheikh Adnan al-Silawi, Sadr's top representative in Amara, referring to the movement's archrival the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and its affiliate, the Badr Organization. "They say they were shocked when we fought in Basra; now they will be shocked by our peaceful reception in Amara. Ultimately they will be the losers."
The Mahdi Army faithful
On Friday in Amara, hundreds of men, including some Mahdi Army fighters, braved the stifling heat and laid their prayer mats on the sunbaked asphalt outside a mosque to listen to Sheikh Silawi's instructions and a sermon by one of his aides. Some kept towels over their heads to protect them from the sun.
"I do not want to hear about anyone responding to a transgression [by Iraqi forces].… This is how your true essence shines through and whoever retaliates is not one of us," Silawi told the rapt audience.