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.
Maliki's aides have denied the allegations. "The battle in Basra is really not a political battle. It's purely security -- against the criminals and all the murderers," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki.
Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni legislator, said it was highly unlikely that the troops could destroy Basra's militia presence in a few days. But the offensive, he said, illustrated the Iraqi government's "strong willingness" to tackle the gangs and sends a message to the United States that "we need to have more know-how and training."
The government has moved about 2,000 extra troops to the city for the push, according to Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a senior U.S. military spokesman. A year ago, he said, it would have struggled to move a force of that size. He said the fighting is aimed at enforcing the rule of law in Basra and is not a battle against the Mahdi Army or "a proxy war between the United States and Iran."
The fighting spread to other parts of Iraq on Wednesday. A U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack in a Mahdi Army-controlled area in Baghdad where U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with militiamen throughout the day, U.S. military sources said. A second U.S. soldier was killed in a separate attack.
In the south, clashes broke out in a Sadr stronghold in Diwaniyah, killing an Iraqi soldier and a policeman, and wounding 13 Iraqi soldiers and policemen. Two gunmen died, according to Col. Ghassan Muhammad of the Diwaniyah emergency police.
Late Wednesday night, U.S. forces bombed Mahdi Army bases in three districts of the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing or wounding as many as 60 people, many of whom were fighters, according to Capt. Muthanna Ahmad, spokesman for the Babil province police. Television footage showed black smoke over the city.
A U.S. military spokesman said the military had no reports of such an attack.
Bergner called the people firing rockets into the Green Zone and other Baghdad neighborhoods "criminals who are dishonoring" Sadr's cease-fire pledge. Immediately after his briefing, the sounds of explosions sent reporters scrambling for cover in a small bunker.
In Basra, besieged residents described growing deprivation.
"The problem now is with the families' daily needs," said Hassan Diksin, 45, a Basra engineer reached by phone. "Limited amounts of food in the houses, no fuel for the electrical generators, no medicines because no one is open and all shops closed. Even bread is hard to get."
"Nobody can move," said Hassan Muhammad Jasim, an emergency aid worker who lives in the Jubaila neighborhood in central Basra. Since Tuesday night, he's lived with the sound of heavy gunfire.
In one neighborhood, a 23-year-old man carrying food and clean water for his family was shot, witnesses said. People called an ambulance, but there was no response. He bled to death.
If the military operation lasts longer than a week, said Ali Abbas Khafeef, 58, his household of four will run out of food. He said he needs medicine to treat stomach problems and a continuous headache. But he said all of it is worth it if the Iraqi military can bring the city under control.
"It's worse than any emergency situation in the world to have to be under the control of naive and uneducated people," said Khafeef, speaking of Basra's militias and gunmen.
Jasim, the emergency worker, described gains by the gunmen. "After two days we feel that the gunmen are in a better position because they are controlling the inside of the city blocks," he said, "while the military who have the main roads are getting attacked from inside the blocks."
But Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman, said that initial reports showed Iraqi forces making progress.
Two Iraqi army sources said Mahdi Army fighters had captured 14 Iraqi soldiers and their commander. They later released seven soldiers.
U.S. authorities, meanwhile, have identified the bodies of two more private security contractors who were abducted in southern Iraq on Nov. 16, 2006, their relatives said late Wednesday. They were identified as Joshua Munns, 25, a Marine veteran from Redding, Calif., and Paul Reuben, 41, a former police officer from Buffalo, Minn.
The men worked for Crescent Security Group. Five guards were abducted in the attack; one was identified Monday, along with another American contractor. Two Crescent contractors remain missing.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Thomas E. Ricks in Washington and Steve Fainaru in El Cerrito, Calif., and special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Dalya Hassan and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.