With the unmistakable success of the surge in disrupting al Qaeda in Iraq's operations and significantly reducing violence throughout the country, the Iraqi Security Forces have turned their attention to the Mahdi Army in Diwaniyah. On November 17, Iraqi Army and police, backed by a U.S. brigade, launched Operation Lion's Leap in the Mahdi Army stronghold.
Lion's Leap is a division-plus sized operation. The operation is comprised of at least two Iraqi Army brigades--the headquarters element of the 8th Division, the 1st Brigade of the 8th Division, and a brigade from the 9th Division which was based in Baghdad--as well as the 7th Division's "quick response forces." The 5th Brigade of the 2nd National Police Division, which recently graduated from retraining at the Besmaya range just south of Baghdad, and the 4th Brigade of the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division are also involved in the operation.
Over 74 Mahdi Army militiamen have been captured since the operation kicked off. At least two significant weapons caches have been found, including one which contained "roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar bombs and explosives."
Iranian-manufactured explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, were also found in one cache. "There are seven Iranian-made roadside bombs and nine anti-tank mines," said Major General Jamil Kamel al Shimari, a senior officer in the 8th Iraqi Army Division. "These are a big danger threatening our forces."
Diwaniyah has been a hub of Mahdi Army activity over the past year. U.S. and Iraqi security forces have conducted numerous raids and operations against the Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups in the southern city. In April, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched Operation Black Eagle in the city. Dozens of Mahdi fighters were killed or captured in the operation.
On October 31, ten Sadrists were captured just south of Diwaniyah. On November 11, a key Sadrist leader was captured inside the city. And last weekend, an Iraqi court sentenced 17 Sadrists to death for attacks on Iraqi security forces.
The movement of forces from Baghdad into Diwaniyah is a significant shift of resources. With the violence reduced in Baghdad, the center of gravity in the current fight, the Mahdi Army elements that refused to stop fighting have now become a high priority.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shia, has long been accused of being either incapable or unwilling to tackle the threat from Shia extremists, but the Iraqi Security Forces, and not Multinational Forces Iraq, have now taken the lead in the fight against the Mahdi Army.