By Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 28, 2008
BAGHDAD, March 27 -- U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.
Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army's AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.
The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets. The Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite rival of Maliki, appeared to have taken the brunt of the attacks; fighting spread to many southern cities and parts of Baghdad.
As President Bush told an Ohio audience that Iraq was returning to "normalcy," administration officials in Washington held meetings to assess what appeared to be a rapidly deteriorating security situation in many parts of the country.
Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.
In Basra, three rival Shiite groups have been trying to position themselves, sometimes through force of arms, to dominate recently approved provincial elections.
The U.S. officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said that they believe Iran has provided assistance in the past to all three groups -- the Mahdi Army; the Badr Organization of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Iraq's largest Shiite party; and forces loyal to the Fadhila Party, which holds the Basra governor's seat. But the officials see the current conflict as a purely internal Iraqi dispute.
Some officials have concluded that Maliki himself is firing "the first salvo in upcoming elections," the administration official said.
"His dog in that fight is that he is basically allied with the Badr Corps" against forces loyal to Sadr, the official said. "It's not a pretty picture."
Elements of Sadr's militia have fought fiercely, including rocketing the Green Zone, the huge fortified compound in Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy, Iraqi government offices and international agencies are located.
Starting about 5:25 p.m., the Post reporter heard the launch of 14 rockets, which Mahdi Army officers in the area said were aimed at the Green Zone. U.S. officials reported that 12 rounds hit the zone in that time frame, including six that fell inside the embassy compound. An American civilian contractor was killed in a residential area of the embassy compound, while another death was reported in the zone's U.N. compound.
Several Mahdi Army commanders said they had been fighting U.S. forces for the past three days in Sadr City, engaging Humvees as well as the Strykers. By their account, an Iraqi special forces unit had entered Sadr City from another direction, backed by Americans, but otherwise the fighting had not been with Iraqis.
"If there were no Americans, there would be no fighting," said Abu Mustafa al-Thahabi, 38, a senior Mahdi Army member.
In August, Sadr ordered his militia to observe a cease-fire, a move widely credited with helping to reduce violence across Iraq. In recent days, Sadr officials have said the cease-fire remains in force. But in practice, his fighters and Iraqi and U.S. forces are waging full-scale war in places. Further fighting with his men could slow U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.
American commanders said in recent days that their units were taking only a backup role in the offensive and that Iraqi forces were growing strong enough to shoulder the country's security needs.
Maj. Mark Cheadle, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said he could not make an accurate assessment of what the Post reporter saw without knowing the precise location. He underlined that U.S. troops were playing a backup role in the offensive but that on a battlefield that is "360 degrees," it might seem at times that they were out front. If an Iraqi unit was about to be overwhelmed by an enemy, "of course we are going to assist."
On Thursday, thousands of followers of Sadr turned out for a peaceful demonstration in Baghdad. Iraqi television channels carried crowd scenes in which people carried a coffin draped in flags and decorated with a portrait of Maliki. They denounced him as a "new dictator" and chanted: "Maliki keep your hands off. People do not want you."
Gunmen wearing police commando uniforms stormed the Baghdad home of a well-known member of Maliki's government, Tahseen al-Sheikhli, and took him hostage, according to the Information Ministry. Sheikhli is a chief spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, in charge of building public support for government efforts to quell violence in the city.
As fighting continued in Basra, saboteurs blew up one of the city's main oil pipelines. Gunmen opened fire on the city's police chief, wounding him and killing three of his bodyguards.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammad, director of military operations at Iraq's Defense Ministry, said the Basra operation would continue until security forces captured the outlaws or wiped them out. He said the Iraqi military planned to seal and search every neighborhood to capture suspected criminals and confiscate weapons.
But an adviser to Iraqi security forces, who had predicted that the fight in Basra would take 10 days, said it could go on much longer. He also said Iraqi forces were calling on U.S. and British forces for help. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak with reporters.
"I think the government can't win this battle without interference of Americans or British," he said. "I think the aid or assistance is on the way." In his view, the Iraqi military needed air coverage and help with logistics and intelligence.
The fighters "are opening many, many fronts against the army," he said. The adviser said the militia's weapons, some of them made in Iran, are more powerful than those of the Iraqi army.
So far, casualties in Basra on all sides have totaled about 400 killed and 300 wounded, he said.
Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman, said Iraqi security forces were "consolidating their current positions" and preparing for the next stage of the offensive. They were cordoning off areas and trying to gain control of the city "bite-size chunk by bite-size chunk."
Residents in Basra said they observed Mahdi Army militiamen gathering in their neighborhood stronghold of Jumhuriyah, assembling men and weapons while dodging gunfire from Iraqi army snipers at intersections.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.