BAGHDAD Ñ Despite a fierce U.S. military offensive, the Mahdi Army
has maintained control over at least one major Iraqi city.
U.S. officials said the Mahdi Army, loyal to Iranian-aligned Shi'ite
cleric Moqtada Sadr, remains in control of Najaf. They said the
Shi'ite militia still threatens significant parts of Baghdad and its
The U.S. military and other coalition forces have launched Operation
Resolute Sword in Shi'ite areas of central and southern Iraq in the
offensive against Sadr. On Friday, the military was said to have captured
the Shi'ite city of Kut, held by the Mahdi Army since Monday.
Officials said the most critical element of the U.S. military operation
was in Baghdad, Middle East Newsline reported. They said U.S. air and ground forces have sought to foil
Mahdi Army attacks against the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority,
military headquarters and key government installations in the Iraqi capital.
"In Baghdad, our forces remain on the offensive, conducting
intelligence-based raids to destroy Sadr's militia as they attempt to
intimidate the population," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of the coalition
forces in Iraq, said. "Despite attempts to incite violence, attack
government facilities and disrupt the lives of Iraqis, coalition units are
in firm control of Baghdad."
Officials said at least 2,000 Sadr combatants were battling U.S. and
coalition forces in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army fighters entered Baghdad on
April 4 as part of Sadr's campaign to launch a Shi'ite insurgency against
the United States.
The United States has accused Iran of helping stir Shi'ite unrest in
Iraq. But as late as Wednesday senior officials, including Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, said there was no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in
the current Shi'ite insurgency campaign.
For their part, Iranian government sources said the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard Corps has trained up to 1,200 members of the Mahdi Army
in bases along the Iraq-Iran border. On Friday, the London-based A-Sharq Al
Awsat daily quoted sources in the IRGC's Jerusalem Brigade as saying that
Iran established three military camps and training centers along the border
with Iraq for the training of the Mahdi Army in both combat techniques and
the production of weapons and explosives. The newspaper said the Iranian
embassy in Baghdad recently distributed 400 cellular phones to Sadr
Sadr's militias, equipped with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and
light arms, continued to control portions of Kut and Najaf, officials said.
They said the U.S. military has been hampered by the presence of thousands
of Shi'ite visitors for a religious pilgrimage that began on Friday.
"What is under control by Mahdi elements is the inner part of the city,
[Najaf] the police stations and the government buildings," Sanchez said.
"And we are very, very cognizant as a coalition of the religious observances
that are ongoing right now and the holy shrine status and the special status
of the city of Najaf."
Officials said the scale of Mahdi Army operations remained small,
usually comprising a maximum of 20 combatants. In some cases, particularly
in Baghdad, the Shi'ite force has used larger numbers but in what turned out
to be poorly-coordinated attacks, officials said.
Still, Sanchez said, the United States will continue to target Sadr's
militia and seek his arrest. He said the U.S. military, amid a major troop
rotation, has not been plagued by manpower shortages. The military has
134,000 troops in Iraq and plans to introduce another 10,000 soldiers.
"Coalition military forces will conduct powerful, deliberate and very
robust military operations until the job is done," Sanchez said. "We are
taking advantage of these forces, and we will manage the redeployment to
give us the combat power that is necessary to accomplish the mission at
Officials said the U.S. military has achieved gains in the effort to
recapture the Sunni city of Faluja, long regarded as the center of anti-U.S.
unrest in Iraq. They said the marines have encountered moderate opposition
and that 25 percent of Faluja has been captured.
The officials said the military has used the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps
to help negotiate a surrender of Faluja as well as that of key Sunni
insurgents. On Friday, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul
Bremer announced a 24-hour ceasefire to allow for mediation by an Islamic
party to end the insurgency.