BAGHDAD (AFP) – US troops detained 25 dissident members of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia during pre-dawn raids in Baghdad on Monday, the American military said.
The operation in the eastern district of Sabak Sur was the latest in a series of raids by the US military against what it terms “rogue” Mahdi Army members, said a spokesman, Lieutenant Michael Street.
“We detained 25 special group cell members,” Street told AFP.
The US military uses the term “special group cell” to refer to Mahdi Army militiamen who have rejected an August ceasefire call by Sadr and who continue to attack American patrols.
“The raid was a precision operation. We knew exactly who we wanted to pick up,” Street said.
The six-month ceasefire is due to expire at the end of February and there is speculation in the Iraqi media that Sadr plans to extend it for another six months despite complaints from supporters who say they are the subject of indiscriminate raids by US forces.
Sadr on Thursday warned militiamen not obeying his orders that they will be expelled from the thousands-strong Mahdi Army, one of Iraq’s most powerful militias.
Leading members of the Sadr movement in parliament have urged the cleric not to renew the ceasefire he declared last August 29 because, they say, security forces are persecuting their members.
Sadr ordered the freeze in attacks after allegations that his fighters were involved in bloody clashes in the shrine city of Karbala.
The suspension of the militia’s activities is cited by US commanders as one of the main reasons for a 62 percent reduction in violent attacks across the country since June.
US military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters on Sunday that the Baghdad raids are “to target those individuals who are not honouring” Sadr’s ceasefire pledge.
“We continue to be encouraged by the comments made by the Sadr trend… we are encouraged by the effect that (the ceasefire) has had thus far,” Smith told a news conference in Baghdad.
“I believe Moqtada al-Sadr understands the positive impact and influence the Sadr trend has had with peace over all of Iraq. This has allowed not only reduced violence… but also allowed us to have a greater effort against Al-Qaeda.”