Muqtada al-Sadr Aide Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji Arrested
Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s top aides, has been captured. We know this because he told us.
U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s top aides Friday in Baghdad, his office said, as pressure increased on the radical Shiite cleric’s militia ahead of a planned security crackdown in the capital. Al-Sadr said in an interview with an Italian newspaper published Friday that the crackdown had already begun and that 400 of his men had been arrested. La Repubblica also quoted him as saying he fears for his life and stays constantly on the move.
Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, al-Sadr’s media director in Baghdad, was captured and his personal guard was killed, according to another senior al-Sadr aide. “We strongly condemn this cowardly act,” said Sheik Abdul-Zahra al-Suweiadi.
The U.S. military said special Iraqi army forces operating with coalition advisers captured a high-level, illegal armed group leader in Baladiyat, an eastern neighborhood near al-Sadr’s stronghold. It did not identify the detainee, but said two other suspects were detained by Iraqi forces for further questioning.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to crack down on Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents in a planned security operation. His reluctance to confront the Mahdi Army of al-Sadr, his political backer, has led to the failure of previous efforts to stem sectarian violence in Baghdad.
In the interview with La Repubblica, al-Sadr said his militias would not fight back during the Muslim holy month of Muharram, saying it was against the faith to kill at that time. “Let them kill us. For a true believer there is no better moment than this to die: Heaven is insured,” he was quoted as saying. “After Muharram, we’ll see.”
Militia commanders have said the Shiite prime minister has stopped protecting the fighters under pressure from Washington and have described pinpoint raids in which at least five top commanders of similar standing were captured or killed in recent months.
The U.S. military accused the main suspect captured Friday of having ties with the commanders of so-called death squads, which have been blamed for many of the killings that have left dozens of bodies, often showing signs of torture, on the streets of Baghdad. The suspect was detained “based on credible intelligence that he is the leader of illegal armed group punishment committee activity, involving the organized kidnapping, torture and murder of Iraqi civilians,” according to the military statement.
It also said he was reportedly involved in the assassination of numerous Iraqi security forces and government officials. “The suspect allegedly leads various illegal armed group operations and is affiliated with illegal armed group cells targeting Iraqi civilians for sectarian attacks and violence,” the statement read, adding he was believed to be affiliated with Baghdad death squad commanders, including Abu Diraa, a Shiite militia leader who has gained a reputation for his brutality.
Now, this strikes me as good news on a number of levels. It would seem to provide additional evidence that the al-Maliki government is cracking down on the militias, even those to who he’s beholden.
Why, though, would al-Sadr break the news himself and talk about how scared he is for his own safety? That strikes me as incredibly odd, especially for someone who wants to cultivate a reputation as a tough guy. Could he have sold out al-Darraji to help bolster al-Maliki and hasten the exit of Coalition forces?
UPDATE: AP’s Stephen Hurst:
Mahdi Army fighters said Thursday 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.
Two other key officials at the top of the organization were killed in raids last month:
• Sahib al-Amiri, a senior al-Sadr military aide, was slain by American forces in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Dec. 27. The U.S. military reported his death, calling him a criminal involved roadside bombings. Al-Sadr lives in Najaf.
• The other top commander, identified by a third Mahdi Army commander as Abu al-Sudour, was shot to death in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid last month as well. He was hunted down in Sadr City.
The third commander, who also spoke anonymously to protect his identity, said U.S.-led raiding parties were now also engaged in massive sweeps, having rounded up what he said was every male old enough to carry a gun in south Baghdad’s Um al-Maalef neighborhood Tuesday night.
Let’s hope this is real progress. There have been numerous instances where it looked like the tide was turning, though, that did not pan out. Maybe this time it’s different but at this stage of the game it’ll take more than a couple days’ worth of good news to change the public mood in the U.S., let alone in Baghdad.