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The Rise of Sectarian Violence and the Baghdad Security Plan, 2006-2007

Aggressive actions and policies by the Mahdi Army since 2005 have left relations between it and British and U.S. forces severely strained. Between mid-2006 and the end of April 2007, at least 40 British soldiers died in suspected attacks by Mahdi forces in southern Iraq. This included an incident in May 2006 in which a British helicopter was shot down, and an incident in August 2006 when a British base near the city of Amarah was shelled. The latter of the two reportedly influenced the British decision to vacate the site, and possibly contributed to the announcement in February 2007 that Britain was prepared to reduce its force in Iraq of 7,100 by 1,600 men by July 2007. Many analysts surmised that this would merely lead invigorate the Mahdi Army and increase its assertiveness in the region. Throughout the month of April 2007 elements of the militia were accused of taking part in the deaths of an additional 11 British soldiers in southern parts of Iraq.

The primary political base of Muqtada al-Sadr and a main concentration of strength for the Mahdi Army has been Sadr City, a heavily populated Shiite district in Baghdad. Despite the fact that the militia had been involved in sectarian killings throughout the country, elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki repeatedly blocked coalition attempts to reign down on the Mahdi Army and Sadr City since he relied heavily on the population and Muqtada al-Sadr for political support. By the start of 2007, however, in what was perceived as an attempt to communicate solidarity with President Bush's latest security directive, Maliki announced that he would no longer prohibit operations Mahdi forces or in Mahdi neighborhoods. Maliki even went on to state that Iraqi security forces had arrested upwards of 600 Mahdi fighters within the past several months.

With a new sense of operational flexibility granted to them U.S. forces wasted no time in taking action. On 8 February 2007 they arrested Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, a well-known supporter of al-Sadr, for allegedly funneling money to forces within the Mahdi Army engaged in sectarian violence and killings. As the Baghdad security operation commenced on 14 February 2007, U.S. forces began to pressure the Mahdi Army and patrol Sadr City. It was reported that Sadr, in response to these actions, demanded his forces to not take up arms and stop operations. Sadr relocated to Iran, perhaps temporarily, where he has remained through May 2007. In April 2007, however, al-Sadr called upon Iraqi militias and the Iraqi Security Force to unite and fight the U.S. "occupation" forces. Earlier that month sporadic fighting occurred between the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces in the city of Diwaniyah.

A report from the Iraq Study Group in December 2006 stated that the strength of the Mahdi Army could have possibly swelled to upwards of 60,000 fighters. In addition, it was concluded that a significant number of those forces infiltrated the Facilities Protection Service, a security force of 140,000 appointed to protect critical infrastructures and buildings throughout the country. As of 27 April 2007 the latest "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq" report released by the Department of Defense declared the Mahdi Army "has replaced Al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq."

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