The AP reports:
BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested one of Muqtada al-Sadr’s top aides Friday in Baghdad, his office said, as pressure increased on the radical Shiite cleric’s militia ahead of a planned security crackdown in the capital.
Al-Sadr said in an interview with an Italian newspaper published Friday that the crackdown had already begun and that 400 of his men had been arrested. La Repubblica also quoted him as saying he fears for his life and stays constantly on the move.
The raid came as Defense Secretary Robert Gates began his second trip to Iraq in less than a month, arriving in the southern city of Basra to consult with British and other allied commanders.
Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, al-Sadr’s media director in Baghdad, was captured and his personal guard was killed, according to another senior al-Sadr aide.
“We strongly condemn this cowardly act,” said Sheik Abdul-Zahra al-Suweiadi.
The U.S. military said special Iraqi army forces operating with coalition advisers captured a high-level, illegal armed group leader in Baladiyat, an eastern neighborhood near al-Sadr’s stronghold. It did not identify the detainee, but said two other suspects were detained by Iraqi forces for further questioning.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to crack down on Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents in a planned security operation. His reluctance to confront the Mahdi Army of al-Sadr, his political backer, has led to the failure of previous efforts to stem sectarian violence in Baghdad.
There’s new news on that front as well:
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Mahdi Army fighters said Thursday they were under siege in their Sadr City stronghold as U.S. and Iraqi troops killed or seized key commanders in pinpoint nighttime raids. Two commanders of the Shiite militia said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stopped protecting the group under pressure from Washington and threats from Sunni Muslim Arab governments.
The two commanders’ account of a growing siege mentality inside the organization could represent a tactical and propaganda feint, but there was mounting evidence the militia was increasingly off balance and had ordered its gunmen to melt back into the population. To avoid capture, commanders report no longer using cell phones and fighters are removing their black uniforms and hiding their weapons during the day.
Captain Ed summarizes:
So what changed? The Bush administration made it clear to Nouri al-Maliki that he was not going to take ‘no’ for an answer this time when it came to breaking the Mahdis. Maliki agreed to the new strategy in Jordan a few weeks ago, and promised that he would not block the mission against Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces. The Sadrites knew that this offense was coming — after all, we could hardly have telegraphed this punch any more clearly — but they did not count on losing their political cover. They also appear to have severely underestimated American intel capability, which has them reeling.
One other dynamic may be at play. Sadr himself, knowing what was about to happen, apparently conducted a purge of his leadership. This is destructive to unit cohesion under the best of circumstances; Stalin crippled his army in the years leading up to World War II after Hitler manipulated Stalin into believing his officer corps was significantly disloyal. Sadr conducted his purge at the same time he was shifting forces around Iraq, making the communications problems even worse than they would have been without the purge.
The insurgents and militias may run out of Baghdad in the coming days, but General Casey insists that the new security plan is “holistic” and designed to account for a sudden retreat. Once they have the Mahdis and the other terrorists on the run, it will make it that much easier to find them and pick them off.
The surge is on. Stay tuned.
Related: Check out today’s Vent over at Hot Air, where you’ll get to see and hear Iraqis speaking to America.
More: Make sure to check out Bryan Preston’s latest report on what he and Michelle Malkin saw during their trip to Iraq.