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.
Maliki also extended a 72-hour deadline to April 8 for fighters to hand over medium and heavy weapons.
Dabbagh said Maliki was planning to stay in Basra until order is imposed. "I can't count the days. It depends on the situation," he said.
Residents of Basra reported general calm in the city Friday. But fighting raged in many other places in southern Iraq. South of Najaf, gunmen shot and killed Saad al-Shablawi, mayor of Ghamas, and wounded two of his guards. In retaliation, members of the mayor's tribe went to the Sadr office in the region and set it on fire. They killed two Mahdi militiamen and turned over nine others to Iraqi security forces.
In Souk al-Shiyoukh, a town south of Nasiriyah, the mayor reported clashes erupting overnight when fighters attacked an Iraqi military brigade. In Shatra, north of Nasiriyah, police commanders reported clashes killing two policemen. And in Nasiriyah, police reported fighting between militias and Iraqi security forces in the northeastern part of the city. One person was reported killed.
Dhafir Abu Sadiq, head of the Sadr organization's office in the city of Kut, reported that his men had surrounded dozens of Iraqi soldiers, some of whom decided to join the Sadr forces and others to go home. He said the Mahdi Army now fully controls the Numaniyah region, west of Kut.
In Baghdad's Green Zone, U.S. government employees were going outside only on urgent business and wearing protective gear.
Philip T. Reeker, the embassy spokesman, said employees have the option of sleeping inside the former Hussein palace or in other "hard cover" buildings in the compound, rather than in the compound's thin-roofed residential trailers.
In an e-mail Friday night, Reeker said sleeping in the embassy was clearly a temporary precaution but "highly recommended given the harassing fire we've received in the past week." He went on: "I, for one, have pulled out a cot in my office."
The U.S. military reported repeated clashes in Baghdad with militia fighters.
At 4 a.m. in Sadr City, a helicopter killed four fighters who were engaging U.S. forces with small-arms fire, officials said. At 7 a.m., a U.S. helicopter's Hellfire missile targeted a vehicle armed with rocket-propelled grenades, killing two fighters in the Adhamiyah district of northern Baghdad.
Later in the morning, soldiers fired on militants setting up improvised explosive devices and returning fire from and killing fighters who had rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
"In the last 48 hours, we have seen more extremists," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman in Baghdad. He said the military had killed 78 "bad guys" in the past three days. "They are violating the rule of law. They are firing rockets indiscriminately. They are criminals and terrorists, and they deserve to die."
Special correspondents Aahad Ali in Basra, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.