BAGHDAD – U.S. officials said Wednesday that a military campaign in the stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has succeeded in nearly eliminating the deadly rocket and mortar attacks launched from the area.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling for weeks in the capital’s Sadr City neighborhood against Shiite fighters tied to al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. military said at least 142 suspected militant fighters have been killed, including at least 15 Tuesday night.
The military on Wednesday also announced that a U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire in eastern Baghdad.
American officials said the mission in Sadr City was to stop attacks on the heavily fortified Green Zone, the center of U.S. military and Iraqi government operations here. The barrages had risen sharply since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a campaign against Shiite fighters last month in the southern city of Basra.
“We accomplished what we were trying to do, which was to stop the indirect fire,” said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for Multinational Division-Baghdad. “The manifestation of the violence that you’re talking about has pretty much stopped.”
At least 697 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired since March 23, mostly from Sadr City, according to U.S. military statistics. The data showed that 292 struck U.S.-led coalition forces, 291 hit Iraqi neighborhoods and 114 fell in the Green Zone.
Those attacks peaked on March 27, when 27 rockets and mortar shells were fired, with 10 striking the Green Zone, the data showed. By early this week, there were eight or so a day, with about three a day recently hitting the Green Zone.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have been operating in the slice of Sadr City south of al-Quds Street, which U.S. officials believe contains about 800,000 of the district’s 2 million to 3 million residents. But U.S. forces have not operated north of that street. “We choose not to,” Batschelet said.
At the Baghdad division’s headquarters at Camp Liberty, U.S. officials emphasized the distinction they see between members of Sadr’s Mahdi Army (known in Arabic as Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM in military parlance) and those who have split from the group, which the military calls “special groups” and “criminals.”
According to U.S. military briefing materials, members of the Mahdi Army are obeying a cease-fire declared by al-Sadr last summer and are working to “avoid future escalations of violence.” Members of the “special groups/criminals” are not adhering to the freeze and account for 73 percent of the attacks that kill or wound U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. They represent “the greatest long-term threat to the security of Iraq and its people,” the briefing materials said.