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US and British forces are increasingly playing a supporting role in the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s stalled offensive against the Mehdi Army militia. American aircraft launched air strikes in Basra yesterday and fought militiamen on the streets in Baghdad while British advisers have also been assisting Iraqi troops in Basra.
Mr Maliki retreated from his demand that militiamen hand over their weapons by yesterday and extended the deadline to April 8. This is a tacit admission that the Iraqi army and police have failed to oust the Mehdi Army from any of its strongholds in the capital and in southern Iraq. The Iraqi army has either met stubborn resistance from Mehdi Army fighters or soldiers and police have refused to fight or changed sides. "We did not expect the fight to be this intense," said the officer from a 300-strong commando unit that has been pinned down in the Tamimiyah district in Basra, where the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army, have strong support.
The officer said four of his men were killed and 15 wounded in the fighting. "Some of the men told me that they did not want to go back to the fight until they have better support and more protection," he added. The Interior Ministry threatened that the men would be court-martialled for refusing to fight. Government troops arriving in Basra complain that they are being fired on by local police loyal to Mr Sadr. Members of one police unit had fist fights with their officers after they refused to join the battle.
The failure of Mr Maliki to make good his threat so far to eliminate the Mehdi Army and growing signs of dissent in army units is damaging his authority, "It is possible that Muqtada and the Mehdi Army will emerge from this crisis stronger than they were before," warned one Iraqi politician who did not want his name published.
Fears that Mr Maliki’s surprise assault on the Mehdi Army is faltering without any real gains on the ground probably explains why US aircraft are dropping bombs in Basra and US armored vehicles made an incursion into Sadr City in Baghdad. The explosion of violence over the past four days is making a mockery of George Bush’s claim that America had turned the corner in Iraq.
The crisis has also presented the British Government with a dilemma. If the 4,100 British troops at the airport remain spectators to the battles in the city, critics will ask what they are doing there. But if they intervene in what is essentially a battle between two Shia factions they will be dragged back into the struggle for Basra in which nobody is likely to emerge the winner.
Mystery surrounds Mr Maliki’s motive in launching an assault on the Mehdi Army after Mr Sadr renewed his six-month ceasefire last month. A likely explanation is that Mr Maliki, who has little support outside the holy city of Kerbala, was under pressure from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), his main ally, to attack the Sadrists now. The Sadrists were expected to do well against ISCI in provincial elections which are to be held in October under an agreement brokered by the US Vice-President Dick Cheney during his visit to Baghdad earlier in the month.
ISCI wanted to crush the Sadrists before the poll and this would be easier to do before the US reduces the numbers of its troops in Iraq. But, unless Mr Maliki’s attack picks up steam over the next week, he will have done nothing except damage his own standing. Demonstrators have already been denouncing him as an American puppet and demanding that he go.
A measure of the anarchy in Iraq is that it is unclear who controls large swaths of the country. By one report the Mehdi Army has taken over the centre of the city of Nassariya. The Green Zone in Baghdad, the headquarters of the Iraqi government and of US political influence, is being mortared every day. One mortar round killed two guards outside the Vice-President’s office in the zone.
Nobody knows on whose side sections of the security services belong. In a further blow to the belief that the surge has restored law and order, one of the two Iraqi spokesmen for the Baghdad security plan, which is at the heart of the surge strategy, was kidnapped and three of his bodyguards killed before his house was set on fire. The victim was Tahseen Sheikhly, a Sunni who often appeared with American officials to proclaim the success of the surge.
A curfew was in force in the capital yesterday.The Iraqi army’s offensive against the Shia militia of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra is failing to make significant headway despite a pledge by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to fight "to the end".
Instead of being a show of strength, the government’s stalled assault is demonstrating its shaky authority over much of Baghdad and southern Iraq. As the situation spins out of Mr Maliki’s control, saboteurs blew up one of the two main oil export pipelines near Basra, cutting by a third crude exports from the oilfields around the city. The international price of oil jumped immediately by $1 a barrel before falling back.
In Baghdad, tens of thousands of supporters of Mr Sadr, whose base of support is the Shia poor, marched through the streets shouting slogans demanding that Mr Maliki’s government be overthrown. "We demand the downfall of the Maliki government," said one of the marchers, Hussein Abu Ali. "It does not represent the people. It represents Bush and Cheney."
The main bastion of the Sadrist movement is impoverished Sadr City, which has a population of two million and is almost a twin city to Baghdad. The densely packed slum has been sealed off by US troops. "We are trapped in our homes with no water or electricity since yesterday," said a resident called Mohammed. "We can’t bathe our children or wash our clothes."
The streets are controlled by Mehdi Army fighters, many of whom say they expect an all-out American attack, though this seems unlikely since the US says that an attack on the Shia militias is a wholly Iraqi affair.
Earlier, a co-ordinated mortar bombardment struck the main police base in the city beside the Shatt al-Arab waterway and there was heavy shooting in the main commercial street of Iraq’s southern capital. An Interior Ministry source said that 51 people had been killed and more than 200 wounded in three days of fighting in Basra. There was an attempt to assassinate Basra’s police chief in which three of his bodyguards were killed by a bomb.
Mr Maliki’s surprise offensive against the Mehdi Army is likely to have repercussions far beyond Iraq. The Americans must have agreed to the attack though they had previously praised the six-month ceasefire declared by Mr Sadr on August 29 and renewed in February as being one of the main reasons why violence had fallen in Iraq. Although Mr Sadr has said the truce is continuing it is ceasing to have much meaning.
President George Bush praised Mr Maliki two days ago, saying he faces a "tough battle against militia fighters and criminals". He said that the Iraqi Prime Minister had taken a bold decision "in going after the illegal groups in Basra".
But the rapid increase in violence may puncture optimism in the US over the "success" of the surge in leading to a turning point in the five-year-long war.
The Green Zone, the heavily fortified centre of American power in Iraq, was struck by rockets and mortars fired from Shia neighborhoods. Clashes are now taking place across Iraq and most of the Shia districts in Iraq. In the middle of last year a Mehdi Army commander said that his militia controlled 80 per cent of Shia Baghdad and 50 per cent of the capital as a whole. This is probably only a slight exaggeration. There has also been heavy fighting in Kut on the Tigris, where 44 have been killed and 75 wounded, and in Hilla on the Euphrates where 60 people died. In past months the Sadrists have been locked in a struggle for Diwaniya, also on the Euphrates south of Baghdad, where they have been fighting police units controlled by Badr, the militia of the other great Shia party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
When he first came to power, Mr Maliki balanced between ISCI and the Sadrists but has steadily become closer to the first party and has shown growing hostility to Mr Sadr. The last big battle between the Sadrists and the Iraqi government backed by the Americans was in Najaf in 2004 and was ended by the intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who wanted the Sadrists humbled but not crushed. He also did not want to see the Shia community divided into warring factions. It is possible that the Grand Ayatollah may seek to mediate again but Mr Maliki may find it difficult to compromise after his claim that he will win control of Basra.
The government has about 15,000 soldiers and the same number of police in Basra but this is not a great number in a city of two million. The police are closely linked to the militias and are unlikely to prove a resolute ally against the Mehdi Army.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.