Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army apparently masterminded the kidnapping of five Britons in Iraq. The abductions likely came as retribution for the death of Sadr’s lieutenant in a gunfight earlier this month between the Mahdis and the British:
Iraq’s most prominent Shia militia has emerged as the chief suspect in the kidnappings of five British nationals in Iraq.
Negotiations with the Mahdi Army are already under way after one of several spokesmen for the armed force under the command of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr claimed responsibility for the kidnappings at the finance ministry in Baghdad.
Hundreds of Iraqi and American troops raided Sadr City, Baghdad’s largest Shia neighbourhood, in an operation that ended early today. Residents said areas of Sadr City were sealed off and several arrests were made.
Iraqi forces have established a special battalion of soldiers and police officers to search for the kidnapped men. “We are conducting search operations near the site where the abduction took place,” said Brig Gen Qassim al Musawi, an Iraqi army spokesman.
If this is true, it challenges the status of Sadr as a politician to a degree not seen since his capitulation in Najaf in 2004. It also highlights the problem of Sadr’s influence on the Interior Ministry, controlled by one of his allies and reportedly infiltrated to a high degree by Mahdis and other Shi’ite militias. The kidnapping took place at a government building, the first time Westerners have been abducted from such a facility.
The abduction itself was a complicated, well-planned event. The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, told the BBC that he suspected the Mahdis of the kidnapping. He said it took a number of people to seal off the building, get inside, and abduct four private security contractors and the computer expert they were protecting. Zebari said that local police almost certainly were involved in the “sophisticated” operation.
The big worry is that the Mahdis will sell the hostages to another group, perhaps even al-Qaeda. The commandos of the SAS have been put on alert in case they are needed for rescue and extraction. In the meantime, the UK and the US have to pressure the Maliki government to either take care of Sadr or to stand by while we do so. The raids on Sadr City this week sent a message, but as we have seen with Sadr in the past, that message needs to be personal — and final, this time.