In an unannounced visit to Baghdad on April 20, US Secretary Condoleezza Rice praised Nuri al Maliki, Iraq's Shiite prime minister, for "ordering" a military offensive last month in the Iraqi seaport city of Basra against anti-occupation Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
The offensive, which US officials initially claimed they had no advanced knowledge of, began on March 25. It involved 30,000 Iraqi Army troops and interior ministry National Police commandos being sent into Basra, Iraq's second largest city. These Iraqi forces were led by US special forces units and backed by US and British airstrikes and artillery attacks.
The Basra offensive stalled within a few days in the face of fierce resistance by the Sadrist militia and desertions by some 1300 Iraqi Army soldiers and local police officers. A temporary truce between the Iraqi military and the Mahdi Army was brokered on March 29 by Iran.
The April 20 New York Times reported that, despite the deal, "American and British warplanes and artillery pounded ... northern Basra".
The NYT also reported that the US 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".
Since March 25, clashes between armed Sadrists and Iraqi Army troops have occurred on a daily basis in Baghdad as US and US-led Iraqi troops have sought to occupy parts of Sadr City — the Iraqi capital's 2-million strong Shiite slum district and a major stronghold of the Mahdi Army.
The April 21 Los Angeles Times reported that, "At least 700 people have died in the fighting in southern Iraq and Baghdad since the government offensive was launched last month".
AP reported on April 23 that, "At least 315 people have been killed in Sadr City alone in the past month, according to an interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ... an Associated Press count shows at least 200 of those killed have been civilians".
Sadr threatens 'open war'
The day before Rice's arrival in Baghdad, Sadr issued a warning that he would order his supporters to wage an "open war until liberation" if armed attacks on them continued. Reuters reported on April 20 that Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad "could barely hide their glee at the prospect of" an all-out war against the US occupation forces. The Sadrist militia is estimated to have at least 60,000 fighters.
The April 20 NYT observed that Sadr's followers "represent the poor and disenfranchised, who were battered under Saddam Hussein, making it difficult for the government to write them off".
According to a study released on April 13 by the Washington-based NGO Refugees International, the Sadrist movement has become Iraq's "largest humanitarian organization", providing the Shiite poor with many of the basic necessities of life.
"They are giving them money to pay rent. They are giving them oil and food. They are providing them with generators for electricity. They are really meeting all the needs that the government and the UN should be meeting at this stage", Kristele Younes, co-author of the study, told NBC News on April 16.
NBC News noted that "Oxfam said more than half of all Iraqis are living in 'absolute poverty'. Part of the reason for the lack of government aid is that corruption is pervasive and organization poor."
Elections and oil
The Sadrists, who declared a unilateral ceasefire last August, have angrily accused Washington and its puppet Iraqi government of trying to crush their movement prior to provincial elections in October. The Sadrists are widely believed to be in a position to win such elections.
Such an outcome would be a major political blow to Washington's goal of handing control over Iraq's huge oil resources, mostly located in the country's southern provinces, to the big US oil corporations. The Sadrists are fiercely opposed to privatising Iraq's nationalised oil industry.
The April 20 NYT reported that "Americans continued to strike Mahdi Army positions in [Sadr City] district's southern sector, which Iraqi and American troops now largely control. The fighting overnight Friday [April 18] 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.
"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."
Despite the heavy involvement of the US occupation forces in the attacks on the Sadrists, Rice told Western reporters on April 20 that fighting Sadr's forces was "an internal Iraqi affair". The April 21 LA Times, however, reported that while US commanders had publicly repeated Maliki's line that the current fighting was aimed at "criminal gangs" rather than the Sadrist movement, Rice singled out Sadr and the Mahdi Army as the target of the Basra offensive.
Sadr's Baghdad office released a statement condemning Rice's visit, saying the Iraqi government should not admit such "occupier terrorists into our pure land".
In a sign that the US military in Iraq is reluctant to engage in "open war" with the Sadrists, General Lloyd Austin, the US second in command in Iraq, told reporters on April 23 that the US military did not hold the Mahdi Army responsible for the current fighting in Baghdad. Instead, he attributed it to "criminals" and unknown "special groups".
The next day, Agence France Presse reported that "American and Iraqi forces building a wall in Sadr City have no plans to besiege the east Baghdad Shiite bastion where they have been battling militiamen for weeks ... 'Our purpose is to secure only the southern part of Sadr City, to prevent rockets being fired towards the Green Zone from the area', Major General Jeffery Hammond, commander of US forces in Baghdad, told a news conference ...
"Hammond said the aim of military operations was to prevent 'criminals and terrorists' firing rockets and mortars ... US commanders said this week that almost 700 rockets and mortar rounds were fired in Baghdad in the past month — 114 of them hitting the highly fortified Green Zone where the Iraqi government and US embassy are based. They said 82% of the rockets and mortar bombs that hit the zone came from Sadr City."