New York Times
March 27, 2008
By James Glanz
BAGHDAD — An assault by thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to regain control of the southern port city of Basra stalled Wednesday as Shiite militiamen in the Mahdi Army fought daylong hit-and-run battles and refused to withdraw from the neighborhoods that form their base of power there.
American officials have presented the Iraqi Army’s attempts to secure the port city as an example of its ability to carry out a major operation against the insurgency on its own. A failure there would be a serious embarrassment for the Iraqi government and for the army, as well as for American forces eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively on their own.
During a briefing in Baghdad on Wednesday, a British military official said that of the nearly 30,000 Iraqi security forces involved in the assault, almost 16,000 were Basra police forces, which have long been suspected of being infiltrated by the same militias the assault was intended to root out.
The operation is a significant political test for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who traveled to Basra to oversee the beginning of the assault. It is also a gamble for both the Iraqi and American governments. The Americans distrust the renegade cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, who consider the Americans occupiers.
The dominant Shiite groups in Mr. Maliki’s government are political and military rivals of Mr. Sadr, and Mr. Maliki is freer now to move against him because Mr. Sadr’s party is no longer a crucial part of his coalition.
But if the Mahdi Army breaks completely with the cease-fire that has helped to tamp down attacks in Iraq during the past year, there is a risk of replaying 2004, when the militia fought intense battles with American forces that destabilized the entire country and ushered in years of escalating violence. Renewed attacks, in turn, would make it more difficult to begin sending home large numbers of American troops.
Mr. Maliki issued an ultimatum on Wednesday for Shiite militias in Basra to put down their weapons within 72 hours. Yet battles continued, killing at least 40 people and wounding 200 others, hospital officials said.
Though American and Iraqi officials have insisted that the operation was not singling out a particular group, fighting appeared to focus on Mahdi-controlled neighborhoods. In fact, some witnesses said, neighborhoods controlled by rival political groups seemed to be giving government forces safe passage, as if they were helping them to strike at the Mahdi Army.
Even so, the Mahdi fighters seemed to hold their ground. Witnesses said that from the worn, closely packed brick buildings of one Mahdi stronghold, the Hayaniya neighborhood, Mahdi fighters fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons and sniper rifles at seemingly helpless Iraqi Army units pinned on a main road outside, their armored vehicles unable to enter the narrow streets.
The assault has also sparked continuing violence by outraged Mahdi commanders in other major cities, including Baghdad, where the sprawling urban slum called Sadr City forms the militia’s power center in Iraq.
Most casualties in Basra were civilians caught in the cross-fire, hospital officials said. The heaviest fighting outside Basra appeared to be taking place in Kut, where officials said 10 people had been killed and 31 wounded, mostly by mortar shells.
There were also deadly clashes in Diwaniya, Hilla and Amara, and the booms of rocket fire rattled Baghdad all day. The American military said in a statement that 16 rockets had been fired into the fortified Green Zone alone, wounding one American soldier, two American civilians and an Iraqi Army soldier.
But it was in Basra where the fighting was by far the most intense, and terrified residents huddled inside their houses for a second day because of a curfew and because anyone on the streets risked being killed.
A Basra newspaper editor who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals said most residents despised the Mahdi Army and welcomed the assault. But he said it was obvious that the central government had not consulted with local commanders in planning the assault, citing the inability of the armored vehicles to fit through city streets. But support for the assault already seems to be eroding in several neighborhoods, as militiamen retained control of their strongholds and residents were confined in their homes. “The Mahdi Army is still controlling most of these places,” the editor said. “The result is negative.”
Local residents said the southern sections of Basra, mostly poor and heavily populated, were still controlled by the Mahdi Army on Wednesday night. One Mahdi commander bragged by telephone that after Iraqi armored vehicles failed to gain access to his neighborhood, the Army units fled and his fighters spray-painted Koranic slogans on the vehicles. The claim could not be independently verified.
Both Mahdi and Iraqi Army officers agreed that some of the heaviest fighting took place in the western Basra neighborhood of Hayaniya, where fighters attacked the Iraqi forces and then retreated into the neighborhood.
Col. Abbas al-Tamimi, media officer for the 14th Iraqi Army Division operating in the city, said he expected the fighting to escalate. “The gunmen have heavier and more sophisticated weapons than we have,” he said.
Although Basra is dominated by Shiite political parties and their militias, the landscape is one of enormous complexity. The Fadhila party, which split from Mr. Sadr’s party years ago, dominates the provincial council. But there is also substantial representation by the Dawa Movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The movement, previously known as Sciri, has changed its name and is now referred to as ISCI.
Mr. Sadr’s party has no council seats, having boycotted the elections, but its Mahdi Army is the most feared armed group on the streets. Still, it shares influence with the Supreme Council’s armed wing, called the Badr Organization, the Fadhila militia and others.
The division of the spoils among the armed groups is often quite specific. Fadhila controls the electricity sector and shares power with the Mahdi at the ports; Dawa and Fadhila have a strong grip in the lucrative southern oil operations, and a different branch of Dawa — the one to which Mr. Maliki belongs — holds sway at the Basra airport.
In practice, the rising power and aggressive tactics have generally turned Fadhila and the Supreme Council against the Mahdi — a politically significant fact for Mr. Maliki, whose coalition depends heavily on the Supreme Council’s support. Reporting was contributed by Ahmad Fadam, Erica Goode and Karim al-Hilmi from Baghdad, Qais Mizher from Naziriya, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Basra, Kut, Hilla, Baghdad and Diwaniya.