Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has taken control of an Iraqi city:
BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Shiite militia run by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized control of a southern Iraqi city on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by the country’s powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said.
Mahdi Army fighters stormed three main police stations Friday morning, residents said, planting explosives that flattened the buildings in Amarah, a city just 30 miles from the Iranian border that was under British command until August, when it was returned to Iraqi government control.
About 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were patrolling in commandeered police vehicles, witnesses said. Other fighters set up roadblocks on routes into the city and sound trucks circulated telling residents to stay indoors.
The militiamen later withdrew from their positions and lifted their siege of police headquarters under a temporary truce negotiated with an al-Sadr envoy. It was not clear on Friday afternoon whether security forces had reasserted control over the city or whether the cleric knew about his militia’s planned takeover in advance.
Bill Roggio of The Fourth Rail provides background and commentary. His summary is apt:
The U.S. and Iraqi Army can dismantle Sadr’s Mahdi Army by force, but it will come at a great cost in lives. The U.S. midterm elections are but weeks away, and there will not be any major moves against Sadr until after the election. Expect the U.S. to ratchet up the pressure on Maliki to make the necessary moves, both politically and militarily, to put down Sadr’s third uprising. The Iraqi government must demonstrate it has a monopoly on force, or cease to be a legitimate entity.
al-Sadr’s actions constitute an intolerable challenge to the Iraqi government. My concern is that delaying action until next month (when it may be more politically fortuitous for the current American administration) will allow the Mahdi Army to consolidate its position and make things more difficult later on. Whatever action is taken shouldn’t have to wait until it’s unable to affect the American election.