BATTLES WITH SHIITE FIGHTERS SPREAD

Maliki Gives Militias In Basra 72 Hours To Give Up Fight

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By Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 27, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 26 -- As Shiite militiamen and Iraqi security forces battled for a second day in the southern city of Basra on Wednesday, with growing shortages of food, water and other basic necessities, rockets rained down again on Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, injuring three Americans and an Iraqi, officials said.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave the militias 72 hours to lay down their weapons or face severe penalties. But there were no signs of surrender. Instead, his troops, backed in places by U.S. and British intelligence aircraft, began battling gunmen in other Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq as well.

The attacks on the Green Zone, site of the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, appeared to be Shiite militia retaliation. All told, 16 rockets fired in four waves hit the zone. American civilians there wore flak vests and took refuge in bunkers during the barrages, which damaged several structures and a vehicle. U.S. forces reported that they had thwarted the launch of eight other rockets.

Politicians and analysts said that the Basra offensive, which appears to focus on Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, is a risky gamble by Maliki. Failure could strengthen the militias, increase Iran's ability to influence events in Iraq and lead to more reliance on the United States to bolster the central government. That, in turn, could slow U.S. troop withdrawals.

"This fight is another potential turning point," said John McCreary, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. "If Maliki does not win in Basra, he will not win anywhere and instability will increase. If he stabilizes Basra, he gets the chance to repeat his success in another town."

The Bush administration and senior U.S. military officers have praised the Basra offensive as a brave move by Maliki to assert Iraqi government control over a strategic port city through which Iraq exports its oil to the world.

In Washington, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters that the Iraqi government's efforts against the militias were "an indication of the continued maturation of this government in its willingness and capacity to take increasing responsibility for security."

But Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator, questioned the timing of the offensive, saying that Iraq's government has numerous other problems to deal with, including passing key laws and resolving tensions over oil contracts. Maliki, he said, did not discuss the offensive with parliament or other political groups.

"He just suddenly appeared in Basra," Othman said. "Everybody is asking, 'Why now?' "

Othman said the timing could help Shiite militias and neighboring Iran ahead of next month's visit to Washington by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who will deliver to Congress a report card on Iraq's progress. "People have ill-advised Maliki," Othman said. "The militias like the timing. Iran likes the timing. They want to show there's no progress in Iraq."

The offensive could collapse a cease-fire ordered by Sadr last August that is widely credited with helping to reduce violence across the nation. A U.S. troop buildup and the rise of a Sunni movement against Islamist extremists have also contributed. U.S. commanders have hailed the cease-fire as a sign that Iraq is making progress and that U.S. policy is finally paying off.

Many Iraqis view the offensive as an attempt by Sadr's Shiite rivals in government, the Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, to weaken his movement before provincial elections and a referendum on federalism planned for this year. Maliki leads the Dawa party, and members of the Supreme Council and its armed wing, the Badr Organization, hold senior positions in the government and police in the Shiite-dominated south.


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