U.S. Airpower Joins Basra Offensive

Days of intense fighting in Baghdad and southern Iraq slowed after the U.S.-backed government of Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against rival Shiite militias and powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for his followers to cease violence.
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 29 -- American aircraft struck militia targets in Basra on Friday, the first time that airpower has been called in to aid a faltering ground offensive there against armed groups that operate outside government control.

The U.S. military reported killing 78 "bad guys" in Baghdad in the past three days; American forces backed by combat helicopters continued Friday to battle members of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in Baghdad, while Iraqi forces took them on in the south.

Militiamen fired rockets and mortar shells three times Friday at the fortified Green Zone, the location of the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices. Mortar shells hit the offices of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, killing two guards and wounding four others, officials reported.

Green Zone attacks this week have killed two Americans; embassy personnel are sleeping in the thick-walled former palace of Saddam Hussein for protection.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the offensive with his troops in Basra on Monday. He has said the goal is to oust dueling Shiite militias and criminal gangs that controlled the city. But Sadr's followers call the offensive a politically motivated attempt to dismantle the Mahdi Army and thwart Sadr's influence in the country ahead of provincial elections this year.

U.S. officials say Maliki launched the push without consulting them. With the Mahdi Army fighters putting up stiff resistance, American forces have been drawn deeper into the conflict to support their Iraqi allies, in some places taking the lead.

The U.S. warplanes that struck in Basra fired cannons in two overnight strafing runs, killing three militia fighters, the British military reported. The targets were a militia mortar team and a militia stronghold, said Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi government has been satisfied with the help it has been given. "At this moment, we feel that Iraqi security forces are doing well," he said.

A source in the police command in Basra said he expected British and U.S. ground units to join the fight in coming days.

Shiite fighters gave similar predictions. "Up to now, neither the Americans or Brits have staged any offensive against us in Basra, but it would happen very soon," said Abu Sadiq, a Mahdi Army commander who said he leads 30 fighters. "We are still fighting the Iraqi forces, and even if the occupiers start their offensive we are totally ready for them."

A senior Iraqi military adviser has said the crackdown is taking longer than expected, partly because militia fighters have superior weapons.

In a sign that the Basra fight might be a long one, Maliki's government eased a 24-hour curfew, allowing residents to leave their homes between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. People in the city complained that the government should have informed them in advance about the offensive so they could stockpile food, water and other basic needs.

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