New York Times: Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday, and Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters.
The New York Times
By JAMES GLANZ and ALISSA J. RUBIN
Published: April 20, 2008
BAGHDAD — Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday, and Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters.
By Saturday evening, Basra was calm, but only after air and artillery strikes by American and British forces cleared the way for Iraqi troops to move into the Hayaniya district and other remaining Mahdi Army militia strongholds and begin house-to house searches, Iraqi officials said. Iraqi troops were meeting little resistance, said Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Baghdad.
Despite the apparent concession of Basra, Mr. Sadr issued defiant words on Saturday night. In a long statement read from the loudspeakers of his Sadr City Mosque, he threatened to declare “war until liberation” against the government if fighting against his militia forces continued.
But it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force, especially given that his militia’s actions in Basra followed a pattern seen again and again: the Mahdi militia battles Iraqi government troops to a standstill and then retreats.
Why his fighters have clung to those fight-then-fade tactics is unknown. But American military and civilian officials have repeatedly claimed that Mahdi Army units trained and equipped by Iran had played a major role in the unexpectedly strong resistance that government troops met in Basra.
Whether to counter those allegations or simply because, as many Iraqis have recently speculated, Mr. Sadr’s stock has recently fallen in Iranian eyes, the Iranian ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, on Saturday expressed his government’s strong support for the Iraqi assault on Basra. He even called the militias in Basra “outlaws,” the same term that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has used to describe them.
“The idea of the government in Basra was to fight outlaws,” Mr. Qumi said. “This was the right of the government and the responsibility of the government. And in my opinion the government was able to achieve a positive result in Basra.”
Strikingly, however, Ambassador Qumi simultaneously condemned American-led operations against the Mahdi Army in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City, where major new clashes broke out on Saturday. He said the American-backed fighting in that densely populated district was causing only civilian casualties rather than achieving any positive result.
“The American insistence on coming and having a siege on a couple of million people in one area and striking them with warplanes and shelling them randomly — many innocent people will be killed through this operation,” Mr. Qumi said. “The result of this operation will be the sabotage and destruction of buildings, and many people will leave their homes.”
The events in Basra, in contrast with the Mahdi Army’s continued fighting in Sadr City, renewed questions about where the Sadrist movement stands in Iraq’s unstable political landscape. While his faction has often played the spoiler in Baghdad’s Shiite political structure, his followers also represent the poor and disenfranchised, who were battered under Saddam Hussein, making it difficult for the government to write them off.
In his statement on Saturday, Mr. Sadr seemed to be claiming the moral high ground despite having to cede territory in Basra. He compared the Iraqi government to that of Saddam Hussein and said that the government had become the enemy along with Sunni extremists and the Americans.
“You are using the politics of Saddam and his followers when he banned the Friday Prayer and displaced women and children; when he created divisions among groups of Iraqis; and used the politics of assassination,” the statement said. “If you do not stop we will announce a war until liberation.”
Still, at one point he sounded an almost plaintive note, saying, “This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them.”
The combination of the Iranian ambassador’s stance and the retreat of militia fighters in Basra may give fuel to accusations by some American and Sunni Arab officials that Iran has taken a powerful and increasingly open role in Iraqi politics.
Mr. Maliki’s abrupt assault on Basra last month has been widely criticized as being poorly planned. But it is believed to have been encouraged by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a crucial element of his governing coalition. Many members of the armed wing of the council, called the Badr Organization, joined the government’s security forces early in the Iraq conflict, and have been battling the Sadr-led forces. Mr. Sadr’s political movement is also an important rival of the Supreme Council.
Because leaders of the council and its armed wing spent years and sometimes decades in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s regime, it was assumed that the silence of the Badr Organization during the Basra offensive indicated that Iran had given at least tacit approval for the move.
Mr. Qumi’s statements now give strong support to that view. They also suggest that Iran, which has historically tried to play Shiite groups against one another in Iraq, has decided to pull back on its support for the group that American officials have continually pointed to as an Iranian-trained troublemaker: Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Whether that means that the stock of Mr. Sadr himself has fallen is unknown, although Mr. Qumi seemed to avoid discussing the cleric and certainly refused to give him any credit for ending the fighting in Basra. At one point during the fighting, members of the Iraqi Parliament traveled to Iran, where Mr. Sadr is believed to be residing, and helped negotiate the terms of a truce.
The developments came as sporadic fighting continued to in some parts of Sadr City on Saturday night. Americans continued to strike Mahdi Army positions in the district’s southern sector, which Iraqi and American troops now largely control.
The fighting overnight Friday and into Saturday was worse than earlier in the week, and wounded at least 66 people, who were taken to the Imam Ali hospital in Sadr City.
Residents described mortar and rocket fire as well as gun battles, with the militias largely initiating the fighting in recent days. And an American reporter traveling with American and Iraqi troops saw that several additional companies had been sent into Sadr City on Saturday.
The Iraqi troops began clearing side streets and alleyways in the southern sector with the aim of gaining full control of the area. Meanwhile, the militias continued to try to dislodge them, infiltrating from the more northern part of Sadr City.
American forces are supporting the Iraqi Army with attack aircraft, medical care and some help with logistics. And while the Iraqi operation is principally focused on holding ground in southern Sadr City, the American focus in the area is mostly on stopping rocket and mortar attacks on the nearby Green Zone.
The latest offensive in Basra started at 6 a.m. Saturday when American and British warplanes and artillery pounded Hayaniya, in northern Basra. The neighborhood had remained a Mahdi Army stronghold after earlier operations had ousted them from the center of the city. “The assault was against known criminal rocket and mortar sites west of Hayaniya,” according to a statement issued in Baghdad by the American military.
The bombing campaign, which could be heard throughout the city, according to residents, prepared the ground for Iraqi troops, who by evening were moving through the district doing house-to-house searches for weapons caches and materials for roadside bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s.
Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Freiji, who is one of the officers in charge of the Basra operation, told reporters that “a few days ago, we told the insurgents to give up their heavy weapons and the I.E.D.’s. But until yesterday night they shot mortar shells and planted improvised explosive devices in Hayaniya’s streets. They are gangsters who are fighting under the name of Mahdi Army.”
Both Mr. Sadr’s office in Basra and the Iraqi general in charge of the operation said there had been little resistance from gunmen there. Aides to Mr. Sadr said that that was because the cleric had ordered his fighters to withdraw. “The Iraqi Army entered Hayaniya and the Mahdi Army did not resist because they made a commitment to obey Moktada al-Sadr’s order,” said Harith al-Athari, the head of the Sadr office in Basra.
The American military said in a statement that British and American military training teams were working alongside Iraqi soldiers and that the Iraqi military consulted with senior British and American officers before undertaking this stage in the battle.
The consultation is a contrast to the early days of the Basra operation, personally led by Mr. Maliki, when Iraqi troops moved in on Basra, with little prior consultation with either the Americans the British, the coalition troops who have a base in the area. Later, members of Mr. Maliki’s inner circle conceded that they had a communications problem, especially with the British, that needed to be rectified.
Michael Gordon and Ahmad Fadam contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Basra and Baghdad.