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Context of 'February 2, 2007: Mahdi Army Forces Inadvertently Strengthened by US'

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Spc. Casey Sheehan.Spc. Casey Sheehan. [Source: Associated Press]Specialist Casey Sheehan, an Eagle Scout, church group leader, and honor student who enlisted in the Army in 2000, dies during an ambush in Sadr City, Baghdad. Sheehan had been in Iraq for only two weeks. His death will drive his mother, Cindy Sheehan, to become a noted peace activist (see August 6, 2005 and After). Specialist Sheehan and six other American soldiers die during a rescue mission in Sadr City. Sheehan and his compatriots are left to fend for themselves by their Iraqi cohorts, newly trained militiamen who flee when fighters for Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army attack their position. Sheehan’s death will become a powerful counterargument against claims by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush officials that “over 200,000 Iraqis… have been trained and equipped” and are “out on the front line taking the brunt of the violence.” Author and media critic Frank Rich will write that given the wildly inflated claims by Rumsfeld and others about the size and effectiveness of the Iraqi soldiers, and the increasing power wielded by al-Sadr, “[i]t is hard to see what Cindy Sheehan’s young son had died for.” [US Department of Defense, 4/7/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 193-194] Mrs. Sheehan, as part of a group of bereaved family members who suffered their own losses in Iraq, will meet with President Bush soon after her son’s death, and come away dissatisfied and angry. Recalling the meeting, she will say: “We wanted [the president] to look at pictures of Casey, we wanted him to hear stories about Casey, and he wouldn’t. He changed the subject every time we tried. He wouldn’t say Casey’s name, called him, ‘your loved one.’” [Los Angeles Times, 8/11/2005]

Entity Tags: Donald Rumsfeld, Cindy Sheehan, George W. Bush, Frank Rich, Bush administration (43), Casey Sheehan

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

Britain accuses Iran of having played a role in the transfer of explosive technology from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army in Iraq. British officials say Iran is responsible for the deaths of all eight UK soldiers killed in Iraq this year, all of whom died in explosions. Iran denies the charges. [BBC, 9/5/2005; Reuters, 10/6/2005]

Entity Tags: Moqtada al-Sadr, Hezbollah, Mahdi Army

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

The US has unwittingly strengthened the Mahdi Army of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr by working hard to train and equip Iraqi security forces. The Mahdi Army is fighting to take over much of Baghdad as US forces try to secure it. US Army commanders and enlisted men who are patrolling east Baghdad - home to more than half the city’s population and the front line of al-Sadr’s campaign to drive rival Sunni Muslims from their homes and neighborhoods - say al-Sadr’s militias had heavily infiltrated the Iraqi police and army units that the US has trained and armed. Platoon leader Lieutenant Dan Quinn says, “Half of them are JAM. They’ll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night.” JAM is the acronym for the Arabic name of the Mahdi Army, Jaish al Mahdi. He adds, “People [in America] think it’s bad, but that we control the city. That’s not the way it is. They control it, and they let us drive around. It’s hostile territory.” The soldiers worry that Bush’s “surge” of approximately 17,000 combat troops allocated for Baghdad will, like previous escalations, merely strengthen the Mahdi Army. The new US soldiers will work to improve Iraqi security units so that American forces can hand over control of the area and withdraw to the outskirts of the city. Instead, Mahdi fighters are themselves withdrawing from the city, in effect ducking the American push until it is over. Lieutenant Alain Etienne says, “All the Shi’ites have to do is tell everyone to lay low, wait for the Americans to leave, then when they leave you have a target list and within a day they’ll kill every Sunni leader in the country. It’ll be called the &slquo;Day of Death’ or something like that. They say, &slquo;Wait, and we will be victorious.’ That’s what they preach. And it will be their victory.” Quinn agrees, saying, “Honestly, within six months of us leaving, the way Iranian clerics run the country behind the scenes, it’ll be the same way here with Sadr. He already runs our side of the river.” Many US officers say that, in hindsight, it is obvious that too much pressure was brought to bear on giving Iraqi army units their own areas of operation, a process that left Iraqi soldiers outmanned, outgunned, and easy targets for infiltration and coercion. “There was a decision…that was probably made prematurely,” says Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schacht. “I think we jumped the gun a little bit.” An Iraqi Sunni says, “[I]f the Mahdi Army comes in here, they will come with the support of the Iraqi army.” [McClatchy News, 2/2/2007]

Entity Tags: Moqtada al-Sadr

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr orders his militia, the Mahdi Army, to suspend offensive operations for six months following the deaths of over 50 Shi’ite Muslims during recent sectarian fighting in the holy city of Karbala. “I direct the Mahdi army to suspend all its activities for six months until it is restructured in a way that helps honor the principles for which it is formed,” al-Sadr says in a statement issued by his office in the nearby city of Najaf. The statement continues, “We call on all Sadrists to observe self-restraint, to help security forces control the situation and arrest the perpetrators and sedition mongers, and urge them to end all forms of armament in the sacred city.” Asked if the unexpected order meant no attacks on American troops, as well as a ban on Shia infighting, a senior Sadr aide says, “All kinds of armed actions are to be frozen, without exception.” [Daily Telegraph, 8/31/2007] Just three weeks before, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno talked of the US concerns over heavy casualties inflicted on US troops by Shi’ite militia fighters using new roadside bombs called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). [New York Times, 8/8/2007] US, British, and Iraqi officials are apparently surprised by the sudden announcement, and military officials are cautious about accepting the truth of al-Sadr’s ceasefire order. British military spokesman Major Mike Shearer says, “We don’t know how real this is and I suspect it will take some significant time to see if violence against us does diminish as a result.” But, two days after the announcement, the US military puts out a statement that calls the ceasefire order “encouraging,” and says it will allow US and Iraqi forces to “intensify their focus on al-Qaeda in Iraq… without distraction from [Mahdi Army] attacks.” It adds: “Moqtada al-Sadr’s declaration holds the potential to reduce criminal activity and help reunite Iraqis separated by ethno-sectarian violence and fear. [The ceasefire] would also be an important step in helping Iraqi authorities focus greater attention on achieving the political and economic solutions necessary for progress and less on dealing with criminal activity, sectarian violence, kidnappings, assassinations, and attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces.” Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubbaie is carefully optimistic: “I will see on the ground what is going to happen. It is good news if it is true. If it happens it will reduce violence in the country a great deal.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office says, “This initiative is an encouraging step toward consolidating security and stability throughout the country and an opportunity for the suspension of the work of the rest of the militias in various political and ideological affiliations to preserve the unity, independence and sovereignty of Iraq.” Al-Sadr does not control all of the Shi’ite militias in the country; those groups do not follow al-Sadr’s lead in suspending hostilities. However, the Mahdi Army is considered by the Pentagon to be the biggest threat to stability in Iraq, even more so than al-Qaeda. In recent months, Mahdi-inflicted casualties have dropped in and around Baghdad, as al-Sadr’s fighters have left the capital to avoid the military crackdown, and gone to Shi’a-dominated southern Iraq. [Daily Telegraph, 8/31/2007; CNN, 9/1/2007] In the weeks and months that follow, US casualties indeed drop; administration and military officials do not credit the ceasefire, but instead showcase the drop in casualties as proof the surge is working (see Early November, 2007).

Entity Tags: Mahdi Army, Mike Shearer, Mowaffak al-Rubbaie, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Raymond Odierno, Nouri al-Maliki, Moqtada al-Sadr

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

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