American military officials are touting a recent series of operations aimed at the most powerful Shiite militia in Iraq, saying troops have captured 16 high-level militia members or commanders.
According to a statement released Tuesday, some 52 operations in the past 45 days have targeted the Mahdi Army, the armed wing of Muqtada al-Sadr’s organization. Another 42 operations, officials said, were targeted at what were termed “Sunni rejectionists/extremists.”
The joint operations have resulted in the capture of five Mahdi Army commanders from Sadr City, among the 16 captured. Military officials said the militia members are suspected of attacks against American and Iraqi troops, civilians and government officials. Mahdi Army leaders have been accused of heading sectarian death squads, mainly in Baghdad.
“The recent detentions are in addition to six other [Mahdi Army] leaders who have been detained … since the beginning of October,” the statement reads. “There are currently over 600 illegal [Mahdi Army] militia in detention awaiting prosecution by the government of Iraq.”
“Criminal activities by these individuals propagated instability within Iraq, and their removal from the social structure is a critical start to providing the Iraqi populace with a safe and stable environment.”
According to American military officials, 33 of the Sunni fighters captured are “cell leaders” in Baghdad. They are accused of “foreign fighter facilitation, car-bomb facilitation, and propaganda operations.”
Going after militias and other armed groups is the cornerstone of President Bush’s new security plan, with its planned boost of 21,500 troops. In the past, U.S. officials have complained about the Iraqi government releasing Shiite militia members or tacitly allowing them to carry out attacks on Sunnis.
In recent days, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has announced some 400 arrests of Mahdi Army members, though aides protested the arrest by Iraqi and American special forces of a top aide to al-Sadr.