Militias control parts of Basra
Discontent grows among Iraqi leaders; US launches more air strikes in attack
BAGHDAD - Shi'ite militiamen in Basra openly controlled wide swaths of the city yesterday and staged increasingly bold raids on Iraqi government forces sent in five days ago to wrest control from the gunmen, witnesses said, as Iraqi political leaders grew increasingly critical of the stalled assault.
Witnesses in Basra said that members of the most powerful militia in the city, the Mahdi Army, were setting up checkpoints and controlling traffic in many places ringing the central district controlled by some of the 30,000 Iraqi Army and police forces involved in the assault.
Militia fighters were regularly attacking the government forces, then quickly retreating. US jets again struck extremist targets near Basra yesterday in an effort to bolster the Iraqi offensive.
Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shi'ite cleric who founded the Mahdi Army, yesterday ordered his followers to defy government orders to surrender their weapons, the Associated Press reported. He said his militia would turn in its guns only to a government that can "get the occupier out of Iraq."
Senior members of several Iraqi political parties said the Basra operation, ordered by Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki, had been poorly planned.
The growing discontent adds a new level of complication to the US-led effort to demonstrate that the Iraqi government had made strides toward being able to operate a functioning country and keep the peace without thousands of US troops.
Maliki has personally staked his reputation on the success of the Basra assault, fulfilling a longstanding American desire for him to boldly take on rogue Shi'ite groups. But at the same time, as criticism of the assault has risen, it has also brought into question yet another American benchmark of progress in Iraq: political reconciliation.
Security has suffered as well.
Since the Basra assault began Tuesday, violence has spread to Sh'iite districts of Baghdad and other places in Iraq where Shi'ite militiamen hold sway, raising fears that security gains often attributed to a yearlong US troop buildup could be at risk. Any widespread breakdown of a cease-fire called by Sadr could bring the country back to the sectarian violence that racked it in 2006 and 2007.
"We don't have to rush to military solutions," said Nadeem al- Jabiri, a parliament member from the Fadhila Party, a strong rival of Sadr's party that would have been expected to back the operation, at least on political grounds. Instead of solving the problems in Basra, Jabiri said, Maliki "escalated the situation."
For the third consecutive day, the US military conducted air strikes in support of Iraqi troops in Basra. Iraqi police officials reported that a US bombing run killed eight civilians. There was no acknowledgment by US officials.
Major Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman, said: "We are aware of reports of an incident in the Basra area resulting in civilian casualties. We are investigating the report and do not have further details at this time."
Holloway did say that "coalition air power," meaning US or British jets, dropped two more precision-guided bombs just after noon yesterday on what was identified as an enemy stronghold in Basra. Shortly afterward, British artillery fired on a militia mortar team. The mortar was destroyed, Holloway said.
At a news briefing in Basra yesterday, Iraq's defense minister, Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, conceded that the assault had not gone according to expectations. "We were surprised by a very strong resistance that made us change our plans," he said.
In Baghdad, the US military was also drawn deeper into the violence generated by the Basra assault, as the military issued a statement saying that US soldiers had killed nine suspected Iraqi terrorists in firefights around Sadr City, the Shi'ite slum that forms Sadr's base of support. The statement said that seven of the Iraqis were killed after they attacked an American unit and two more when they were caught placing roadside bombs.
Later yesterday, the military announced that two US soldiers were killed by a bomb in Shi'ite-controlled eastern Baghdad.
Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said they would extend a strict citywide curfew indefinitely, in an attempt to keep the streets clear.
Maliki's forces might have lost ground in the battle for public opinion when, in a well-publicized event in Sadr City, 40 men who said they were Iraqi police officers surrendered their weapons to Sadr officials, who symbolically gave the officers olive branches and Korans. The weapons were returned after the officers pledged not to use them against Mahdi Army members.
"These weapons are for defending the country but not for fighting your brothers," said Sheik Salman al-Fraji, head of the Sadr office there.
Although a citywide curfew remained in effect in Baghdad, the booms of rockets or mortars were heard in the morning. It was not immediately clear who had fired them or where they landed, although the fortified Green Zone, the nerve center of American and Iraqi governmental operations, has been a frequent target since the Basra operation began.
Clashes between militias and Iraqi government security forces continued elsewhere in the country. There was intense fighting for a second consecutive day north of Basra in Dhi Qar Province and its capital, Nasiriyah, where officials said the toll yesterday was 28 killed and 59 wounded. There were running battles on a main bridge in the center of Nasiriyah, an Iraqi police officer said, and gunmen controlled the town of Shatra, about 20 miles north.
There also appeared to be a major operation underway around Baqubah, north of Baghdad, where government tanks blocked streets in at least three neighborhoods as troops sought members of the Mahdi Army.
In Basra, mortar shells rained down in the late afternoon on the area of the Presidential Palace and the Shatt Al Arab hotel, where the assault has its operations center. Groups of 10 to 12 militia members set up checkpoints as close as 50 yards to government positions throughout the northern and western parts of the city, carrying out raids on remaining areas in the city center still controlled by government forces.
"Is this the gift that Maliki promised Basra?" said Walid Nabeel, 25, a medical student. He conceded that security had been far from ideal before the assault, but said, "Now we have hundreds of killed and injured."
The government set up an army recruitment center in Basra, but anyone heading that way was stopped by Mahdi Army members, who questioned their loyalties.
"Unfortunately we were expecting one thing but we saw something else," said Ali Hussam, 48, a teacher, who said that after Saddam Hussein's fall the people of Basra hoped for peace. "But unfortunately with the presence of this new government and this democracy that was brought to us by the invader, it made us kill each other.
"And the war is now between us," he said.