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.
Later, hundreds of Sadr followers took to the streets of Najaf, carrying Korans, Iraqi flags and olive branches. Calling Maliki "the agent of Americans," they chanted: "No, no occupation! No, no terrorism!"
"The Iraqi army went to Basra under the pretext of imposing a security plan, but the fact is they are targeting Sadrists," said Haidar al-Jaberi, a Sadr official who joined the protest.
Violence has gripped Basra since December, when British troops handed over control of the province to the Iraqi government. A power struggle between the Mahdi Army and its main rival, the Badr Organization militia of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has battered the city in recent months. Smaller Shiite militias are also taking part in the fighting.
Ahead of the offensive, the Iraqi government closed off land access to the city and imposed a nighttime curfew until further notice. The government ordered schools, institutes and universities to cancel classes from Tuesday through Thursday. Some residents said they had no time to stock up on food and clean water.
Residents also reported that sporadic clashes began in Basra early Tuesday morning in the neighborhoods of Hayania, Jubaila and Jumhuria, all known Sadr strongholds. In telephone interviews, they described seeing military vehicles, soldiers and policemen exchanging fire with gunmen. Television footage showed militiamen firing rocket-propelled grenades at Iraqi security forces; others attacked from rooftops with AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns and mortars.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 13 gunmen, three Iraqi policemen and six civilians had been killed, police said. Scores more were injured, and at least five military vehicles were set ablaze, according to police.
"No one is on the street," said Mohammed Kadhim, who owns a clothing shop in the city center. As he spoke, gunfire could be heard in the background. "I am not able to go out of my house."
Kadhim added that one of his neighbors had been shot in the face and was in critical condition.
A total of 15,000 Iraqi military and police personnel were participating in the Basra operation, according to an adviser to Iraq's security forces who spoke by telephone. At one point in the conversation a mortar shell landed near his building, he said. He paused to take time to check on his soldiers and examine his body for shrapnel.
"It's a tough and difficult battle," he said, adding that his men were fighting Mahdi Army militias, criminal gangs and death squads.
The adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said he expected the campaign to take a week to 10 days. "No state can have two armies. It is either the Iraqi military or the Mahdi Army," he said.
Col. Bill Buckner, a U.S. military spokesman, said coalition forces were providing intelligence, surveillance and support aircraft. Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman, said British forces were standing by but were not involved in the crackdown. He also said the British and Americans were providing surveillance support from aircraft.
As the offensive progressed, violence broke out elsewhere in the country. In Baghdad's al-Amin neighborhood, Mahdi Army gunmen stormed two offices of the Dawa party, which Maliki heads, and clashed with guards there. Five Mahdi Army gunmen and two Dawa guards were killed, an Interior Ministry official said.
In Sadr City on Tuesday afternoon, Mahdi Army militiamen were manning checkpoints and directing traffic. The main police station was empty.
Abu Ali al-Fartousi, a Mahdi Army fighter, said a battle broke out in Sadr City at 10:30 p.m., with Mahdi fighters using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to repel government forces. A U.S. military spokesman reported no word on any late-night fighting in Sadr City.
Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a U.S. military spokesman, said U.S. troops backed Iraqi security forces as they engaged with "special groups criminal elements outside of Sadr City." A U.S. soldier was killed about 5 p.m. in an attack near Baghdad's Adhamiyah district, the U.S. military said. He was not identified.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Naseer Nouri, Dalya Hassan and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf, and Washington Post staff in Nasiriyah contributed to this report.