Intense Fighting Erupts In Iraq

By Sholnn Freeman and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 25 -- Fierce gun battles erupted between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias in Basra, Baghdad and other cities Tuesday as the government, backed by U.S. and British reconnaissance planes, launched an offensive aimed at breaking the power of politically backed gunmen.

The fiercest fighting took place in Basra neighborhoods where Iraqi forces targeted members of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, further risking the collapse of a cease-fire that Sadr declared last summer. His fighters' stand-down has been widely credited with helping curb violence throughout the country during the U.S. troop buildup known as the surge.

When the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker deliver a report card on the country before Congress next month, a key gauge of progress will be whether the Iraqi government and its security forces are prepared to take over as U.S. troops withdraw.

The offensive in Basra, an important test of that preparedness, was several weeks in the making. While it targets the Mahdi Army in particular, its goal is also to break the grip that other Shiite militias, criminal gangs and death squads hold upon the southern port city, the conduit for Iraq's oil exports. In recent weeks, the militias have often battled each other in the streets.

It was unclear why U.S. forces would take part in a broad armed challenge to Sadr and his thousands-strong militia on the eve of Petraeus's assessment, which the Bush administration has said would greatly influence its decision on whether to draw down troop levels.

But many Sadr followers view the offensive as the latest attempt by the United States and Sadr's Shiite rivals, who run Iraq's government, to take advantage of Sadr's cease-fire to weaken his movement politically ahead of provincial elections that could take place this year.

"We are really scared," said Aahad Hamid, 27, a Basra University employee whose voice quivered on the phone as Iraqi attack helicopters flew over the city. "We can hear the voice of the bullets."

In a sign of the offensive's importance, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flew to Basra on Monday to oversee operations.

By Tuesday evening, Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias had also clashed in the cities of Kut and Hilla, as well as outside Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City. Dusk-to-dawn curfews were imposed on at least six cities in southern Iraq, police said.

In Baghdad, mortars and rockets pounded the heavily protected Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and key Iraqi government offices, for the second time in three days. The attacks were apparently launched from Shiite enclaves. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said no deaths or injuries had been reported in Tuesday's attacks; an American civilian wounded in a similar barrage Monday was reported to have died.

In addition to resisting with arms, Sadr's movement led a labor strike for a second day in many parts of eastern and central Baghdad on Tuesday, demanding the release of Sadr's jailed followers and an end to Iraqi government raids. Sadrist leaders ordered stores to close and taxi and bus drivers to stop operations. Many neighborhoods turned into virtual ghost towns, their usually busy streets all but empty. Parents kept their children home from school.

Sadr, who imposed the cease-fire to improve his nationalist credentials and rein in his often unruly militia, is under immense pressure from senior loyalists to lift the cease-fire order. Two weeks ago, he issued a statement permitting the Mahdi Army to fire on U.S. and Iraqi forces in self-defense. Hazim al-Araji, a senior Sadr official in the southern holy city of Najaf, told reporters there that the cease-fire remains in place despite Tuesday's clashes.

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