BAGHDAD, Iraq — 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.
During much of his nearly eight months in office, al-Maliki has blocked or ordered an end to many U.S.-led operations against the Mahdi Army, which is run by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the prime minister’s key political backer.
As recently as Oct. 31, al-Maliki, trying to capitalize on American voter discontent with the war and White House reluctance to open a public fight with the Iraqi leader just before the election, won U.S. agreement to lift military blockades on Sadr City and another Shiite enclave where an American soldier was abducted.
But al-Maliki reportedly had a change of heart in late November while going into a meeting in Jordan with President Bush. It has since been disclosed that the Iraqi leader’s vision for a new security plan for Baghdad, to which Bush has committed 17,500 additional U.S. troops, was outlined in that meeting.
Al-Maliki is said by aides to have told Bush that he wanted the Iraqi army and police to be in the lead, but he would no longer interfere to prevent U.S. attempts to roll up the Mahdi Army.
In a meeting before his session with Bush, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was said by al-Maliki confidants to have conveyed the increasing anger of fellow Sunni leaders in the Middle East over the continuing slaughter of Sunni Muslims at the hands of Shiite death squads.
Until February, much of the violence in Iraq was the work of al-Qaida in Iraq and allied Sunni organizations. They had killed thousands of Shiites in random bomb attacks in what was seen as an al-Qaida bid to foment civil war.
When al-Qaida bombers blew up the Golden Dome mosque, an important Shiite shrine in the mainly Sunni city of Samarra on Feb. 22, Shiite militiamen, especially the Mahdi Army fighters based in Sadr City, stormed out of the poor enclave in a drive for revenge that has only grown in ferocity.
The U.N. reported this week that the sectarian fighting killed more than 34,000 Iraqis last year, a figure that was criticized but not disputed Thursday by the Iraqi government.
With the Sunni threat in mind, evidence since the meetings in Jordan indicates that al-Maliki has kept his pledge to Bush that there would be no further interference in favor of Shiite militias.
On Wednesday, the prime minister said 400 Mahdi Army fighters had been detained in recent months, although an exact timeframe was not given.
The midlevel Mahdi Army commanders, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the group operates in secret, said at least five top commanders of similar standing were captured or killed in recent months, including one snatched in a night raid from his Sadr City hide-out on Tuesday. They refused to name him.
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.
The U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, alluded to the tactics early this month when he was asked by the AP if the coming security operation would focus on pinpoint raids or broader military engagements.
“It’ll be a combination of targeted killings and more traditional large-force operations,” Caldwell said.
There has been so much advance publicity about the coming security plan, major speeches by both Bush and al-Maliki, that the militant targets of the operation — both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen — have had ample warning the U.S. and Iraqi militaries are drawing a bead.
One of the Mahdi Army commanders who spoke with the AP said the early warning was not ignored.
“Our top leadership has told us to lay low and not confront the Americans. But if Sadr City is attacked, if civilians are hurt, we will ignore those orders and take matters in our own hands. We won’t need orders from Sheik Muqtada (al-Sadr),” the midlevel commander said.
Others in the organization said street fighters have been told not to wear their black uniforms and to hide their weapons, to make their checkpoints less visible. Reports from the growing number of neighborhoods controlled by the militias indicate fighters are obeying.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the security strategy and the additional American forces would allow the crackdown to be sufficiently broad to sweep up those who try to escape Baghdad and operate elsewhere.
“On the militia, the Baghdad plan itself is integrated to a holistic, countrywide plan that the multinational corps is developing. And security for Baghdad won’t just come from securing the inside of Baghdad,” Casey said at a briefing on Monday.
“It comes from the support zones around the outside as far away, as you suggest, Baqouba and Ramadi and Fallujah. It goes all the way out to the borders to stop the flow of foreign fighters and support coming in there.”
The Mahdi Army commanders said they were increasingly concerned about improved U.S. intelligence that has allowed the Americans to successfully target key figures in the militia.
“We’re no longer using cell phones except in emergencies. Some of our top commanders have not been home (in Sadr City) for a year because they fear capture,” one of the commanders said.
The militiamen said al-Sadr himself had apparently gotten wind of the coming assault and ordered a reshuffling of the Mahdi Army command structure, transferring many leaders to new districts and firing others who were of suspect loyalty.
While Shiite militiamen were less in evidence on Baghdad streets, Sunni insurgents continued their bomb and shooting attacks in Shiite regions and Shiite death squads remained active at night.
Police reported a total of 59 people killed or found dead Thursday, with the single largest toll from a triple car bombing that killed 10 in a wholesale vegetable market in a south Baghdad Shiite neighborhood. Twenty-seven bodies were found dumped in Baghdad, 19 on the largely Sunni west side of the Tigris, eight on the mainly Shiite east bank.