"The intense fighting in southern Iraq is entering its fourth day, bringing pressure on the Iraqi government to lead the country out of its plunge back into the prolonged sectarian violence of the past. The ceasefire announced by Iraq's biggest sectarian militia last August, appears to be in tatters as Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki struggles to contain the country's Shiite warlords."
This was how Virginia Trioli, host of ABC TV's March 28 Lateline program, introduced a news segment about the assault that began before dawn on March 25 in the southern Iraqi city of Basra by 30,000 Iraqi Army soldiers and National Police paramilitary commandos.
Trioli presented Maliki's government, which is dominated by a coalition of Shiite religious parties, as though it was a neutral bystander trying to end an eruption of fighting between rival "Shiite warlords".
However, less than a minute later, Lateline showed footage of the commander-in-chief of the biggest militia in Iraq praising Maliki for breaking the ceasefire. This warlord insisted: "Prime Minister Maliki's bold decision — and it was a bold decision — to go after the illegal groups in Basra shows his leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an even-handed manner."
"It also shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge", the warlord continued. "Iraqi forces planned this operation and they deployed substantial extra forces for it."
These remarks, made by US President George Bush on March 27, were as misleading as Trioli's. The Basra offensive was not undertaken to "even-handedly" deal with all of the Shiite militias in Iraq's third largest city.
The offensive targeted the Mahdi Army militia of anti-government Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. It ignored the rival Badr Organisation, the Shiite militia of Abdul-Aziz Hakim's Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISIC), the dominant party in Maliki's governing coalition.
In March 2006, John Pace, the UN's outgoing human rights chief in Iraq, told the British Guardian that there had been 7000 death-squad-style killings in Baghdad over the previous nine months. The bulk of these killings had been carried out by members of the interior ministry's US-trained National Police commandos. "The Badr brigade are in the police and are mainly the ones doing the killing", Pace said.
"Leadership in the commando positions has been turned over to Badr, and new recruits are mostly Badr", Matt Sherman, a US embassy adviser to Iraqi interior ministers in 2004-05, told Time magazine in early 2006.
In a March 26 interview posted on the website of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, the US political establishment's leading foreign-policy think tank, CFR senior Middle East analyst Vali Nasr said: "Maliki is completely irrelevant. The real show is between Hakim and Sadr … Maliki is just the figurehead, the official representative of the Iraqi government."
This was indicated by US Vice-President Dick Cheney during his unannounced visit to Baghdad on March 17. He discussed the "security situation" with General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and US ambassador Ryan Crocker. After briefly meeting with Maliki, Cheney discussed the "security situation" with Hakim, who holds no official position in the Iraqi government.
According to the White House website, after his meeting with death-squad leader Hakim, Cheney said: "… let me say how pleased I am to be back in Baghdad, and especially able to visit the home of my friend, Sayyed Abdul-Aziz Hakim … Hakim and I had a good chance to review the situation, and I had a chance to thank him for working so hard with the United States and with Iraq's other leaders to advance the cause of Iraq's freedom and democracy."
In a March 28 CFR "daily analysis" piece on the fighting in Basra, staff writer Greg Bruno noted that in a November 2007 report the Brussels-based International Crisis Group "assessed the rivalry as a class struggle between 'the Shiite urban underclass', represented by Sadr, and wealthier Shiites in Baghdad and the holy cities, represented by ISCI."
Bruno added: "Some observers see the recent violence as an attempt by Hakim to reshape the political landscape ahead of provincial elections slated for October 2008". Indeed, the US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website reported on March 26 that within Iraq "there is a widely held belief that the Sadrists are poised for huge gains in the Shiite-dominated south in the October ballot".
RFE/RL also noted that the southern provinces hold 80% of Iraq's proven oil reserves and that the Basra city port "is the departure point for nearly 90% of Iraq's oil exports to world markets". ISIC wants to sell Iraq's nationalised oil resources off to foreign oil corporations.
It also wants the lion's share of taxes on oil exports from southern Iraq to go to a Shiite "autonomous regional government", rather than the Iraqi national government. The Sadrists are opposed to both of these plans.
Writing in the March 30 New York Times, Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies reported that a "looming power showdown" between Maliki's US-backed, ISIC-dominated government and the Sadrists "was all too clear when I was in Iraq last month …
"American military and civilian officials were candid in telling me that the governors and other local officials installed by the central government in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq had no popular base. If open local and provincial elections were held, they said, [Maliki's] Dawa party and the ISIC were likely to be routed …"
Also on March 30, New York Times correspondent Qais Mizher reported: "Iraqi forces started their assault on the Shiite militias in Basra on Tuesday. Whatever the initial goal of the operation, by the time I arrived in Basra [on Thursday, March 27], it was a patchwork of neighborhoods that were either deserted or overrun by Mahdi fighters.
"There were scattered Iraqi Army and police checkpoints, but no place seemed to be truly under government control … The next day I moved around as much as I could. The common observation was this: There was nowhere the Mahdi either did not control or could not strike at will."
On March 29, as the Basra offensive faltered in the face of stiff resistance from Mahdi Army fighters, Maliki extended until April 8 a 72-hour deadline he had issued on March 26 for Mahdi Army members to surrender their weapons. But, reported Reuters, "Sadr's aides said the cleric had told his followers not to turn over any weapons to a government that was unable to expel the 'occupiers', referring to US forces."
That same day, US commanders began admitting that their forces were directly involved in the Basra ground offensive.
Associated Press reported that the "US military says 16 enemy fighters have been killed in airstrikes supporting Iraqi troops during clashes with Shiite militiamen in Basra. Military spokesman Maj. Brad Leighton says an AC-130 gunship strafed heavily armed militants attacking Iraqi forces from three rooftops in the southern city … Leighton says US special operations forces helped identify the militants before the airstrike."
Reuters reported the next day that the US military "confirmed that US special forces units were operating alongside Iraqi government troops in Basra … A US military statement described a joint raid by Iraqi and US special forces units which killed 22 suspected militants."
Later on March 30, Sadr issued a media statement calling on his followers not to appear in public with their weapons. Time magazine's website reported on March 31 that "armed fighters were no longer in the streets" of Basra, but that "rockets or mortars once again slammed into the US and Iraqi headquarters in central Baghdad".
"In what has become a routine since such attacks began last weekend, American soldiers and contractors caught outdoors sought cover in concrete bunkers."
After reporting that an Iraqi government spokesperson had appeared on TV the previous evening hailing Sadr's announcement as a "positive statement", Time observed that the Maliki government's "position all along has been that it is fighting criminals, not members of the Mahdi Army. So the importance the government has attached to Sadr's announcement undercuts its assertion that it is not engaged in combat with the radical cleric's forces."
In a March 31 analysis piece, Reuters observed that the Basra offensive "was lauded by US and British officials as evidence of the growing strength of the Iraqi Army, but by the weekend it had largely stalled, with Iraqi troops having failed to dislodge the gunmen from their strongholds. Embarrassingly, Iraq's defence minister had to admit that despite much preparation, his forces were not ready for such fierce resistance …
" Sadr, ironically, may emerge stronger from the affair. 'Clearly Sadr has gained a victory. This was not a fight he picked and his forces looked strong. He has consolidated his position', said [British Middle East analyst Gareth] Stansfield.
"The cleric, who is widely believed to be in Iran furthering his religious studies, now looks like the victim of political manoeuvring by Shiite parties in government."
The April 1 London Times reported from Baghdad that "Maliki's huge gamble appeared to have failed yesterday. Having vowed to crush Shia militias with a 30,000-strong force in Basra, he ended up suing for peace with the people he had described as 'worse than al Qaeda'. The Mahdi Army kept its weapons and turf.
"Sheikh Salman al Freiji, the head of the [Baghdad] Sadr Office, said that Maliki was a tool in the hands of the Americans. 'The American project has been to split the Iraqi sects and community from Day 1 … They tried to split Sunnis from Shia. Now that has failed, they are trying to split the Shia.'
"He said that a Mahdi Army freeze on operations, introduced in August, was still in place but reserved the right to attack the 'illegitimate American occupation'."