U.S. Forces Routing Sadr’s
U.S. forces expanded an offensive against rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr on Sunday by pushing into his stronghold of Kufa for the first time, as his armed followers vanished from the streets of this Shiite holy city.
The battle for southern Iraq, which has occupied U.S. soldiers for weeks, appears to have shifted from a broad engagement across several fronts to a sustained battle aimed at a single elusive objective: Sadr, who leads thousands of militiamen, known as the Mahdi Army.
For seven weeks, U.S. forces have been killing scores of the fighters loyal to Sadr, who has fomented an anti-American insurrection in a region once receptive to the occupation. But the Americans have largely left Sadr alone, fearing that killing him could turn him into a martyr.
The U.S. military’s first push into Kufa, where Sadr preaches each Friday, and a strike on a convoy carrying his top aide over the weekend suggest that U.S. commanders have set aside that concern.
U.S. military officers involved in the operation say the assault in Kufa, which began before dawn Sunday and continued into the night, is the latest phase in a campaign that has squeezed Sadr forces out of Kut, Diwaniyah and, over the weekend, the holy city of Karbala.
“We’re closing in,” said a military official familiar with the operation, declining to characterize it as a hunt specifically for Sadr. “We’re keeping the pressure on.”
U.S. military officials have five weeks to tame a broad insurgency before an interim Iraqi government assumes limited political authority from the Americans. Quieting the rebellion has become among the most pressing security concerns for U.S. officials as anti-occupation sentiments rise in the run-up to the June 30 handover.
This is a huge development that continues to be overshadowed by the Abu Ghraib scandal. Indeed, until the early signs of this in yesterday’s papers, all indications in the major media had been that our efforts against Sadr had been futile.