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Spinning the Bloodshed in Basra

James Glanz writes in the New York Times: "An assault by thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to regain control of the southern port city of Basra stalled Wednesday as Shiite militiamen in the Mahdi Army fought daylong hit-and-run battles and refused to withdraw from the neighborhoods that form their base of power there.

"American officials have presented the Iraqi Army's attempts to secure the port city as an example of its ability to carry out a major operation against the insurgency on its own. A failure there would be a serious embarrassment for the Iraqi government and for the army, as well as for American forces eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively on their own.

"During a briefing in Baghdad on Wednesday, a British military official said that of the nearly 30,000 Iraqi security forces involved in the assault, almost 16,000 were Basra police forces, which have long been suspected of being infiltrated by the same militias the assault was intended to root out. . . .

"[I]f the Mahdi Army breaks completely with the cease-fire that has helped to tamp down attacks in Iraq during the past year, there is a risk of replaying 2004, when the militia fought intense battles with American forces that destabilized the entire country and ushered in years of escalating violence."

And Glanz notes: "Though American and Iraqi officials have insisted that the operation was not singling out a particular group, fighting appeared to focus on Mahdi-controlled neighborhoods. In fact, some witnesses said, neighborhoods controlled by rival political groups seemed to be giving government forces safe passage, as if they were helping them to strike at the Mahdi Army."

Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers that the United States is "providing air cover and embedded advisers" for the offensive -- as well as upbeat assessments and misleading information about who is being targeted.

"Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner . . . said that the operation wasn't against the Mahdi Army, only against outlaws who didn't honor Sadr's freeze. . . .

"The situation on the ground suggested otherwise."

Time's Charles Crain calls the U.S. position on the Basra campaign "a charade" that "may end badly." He writes: "The U.S. military has been very careful to say that the current offensive by the Iraqi government in southern Iraq was simply 'enforcement of the law in Basra.' It was not directed against the Mahdi Army. . . . The U.S. maintained that line today even though it was clear that the 'criminal gangs' battling government forces in Basra were identifiable as elements of the Mahdi army."

And Crain raises an important question: "So far the U.S. has mostly stayed out of the fighting, preferring to let the Iraqi government and Iraqi troops take the lead. Bergner would not comment on whether the Americans would become involved more directly if the Iraqi government could not complete its Basra operation. 'I would say,' he said, 'that's a very hypothetical question at this time.'

"It is also the question of the hour. If the violence continues to intensify and the Iraqi government cannot finish what it started then the U.S. must choose whether to throw its troops into the fight. If that happens then the seven-month cease-fire, which was vital to the dramatic drop in violence late last year, will truly be over and a new round of blood-letting may be about to begin."

Alexandra Zavis and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times: "Administration officials said the operation was an important sign that the Shiite-dominated Maliki government was finally willing to take the initiative against extremist elements within its own religious sect. . . .

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