James Glanz and Graham Bowley report from Baghdad:
Thousands of supporters of the powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia took to the streets of Baghdad on Thursday to protest the Iraqi Army’s assault on the southern port city of Basra, as intense fighting continued there for a third day. In Basra, there seemed to be no breakthrough in the fighting by either side. As much as half of the city remained under militia control, hospitals in some parts of the city were reported full, and the violence continued to spread. Clashes were reported all over the city and in locations 12 miles south of Basra. The Iraqi Army’s offensive in Basra is an important political test for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and for American strategy in Iraq. President Bush sought to portray the fighting in a positive light on Thursday, declaring the offensive by Mr. Maliki’s government a “bold decision.” But if the army’s assault in Basra leads the Mahdi Army to break completely with its current cease-fire, which has helped to tamp down attacks in Iraq during the past year, there is a risk of escalating violence and of replaying 2004. That year, the militia fought intense battles with American forces that destabilized the entire country. As a possible sign of the rising instability in the region, saboteurs blew up one of Iraq’s two main oil export pipelines from Basra, Reuters reported. The oil pipelines were regular targets for insurgents earlier in the Iraqi conflict, but Thursday’s sabotage was the first time in several years that the southern oil supply route had been disrupted, and oil prices rose briefly after the attack. In a speech at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Mr. Bush said Mr. Maliki’s decision to wage the offensive “shows his leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an evenhanded manner.”
President Bush appears to be clueless. Paul Kiel may be able to assist:
For years, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army was one of the main destabilizing forces in Iraq. But last summer, he agreed to a cease fire, a move that everyone agrees has done a tremendous amount to diminish the violence in recent months. He renewed the cease fire last month. But Sadr’s group has splintered. And Shiite militias, some connected to Sadr and some not, have been mixing it up in the southern city of Basra. The British handed over control of the province to the Iraqi government in December, and things have been downhill since then. For weeks (or months), Iraqi forces (with U.S. encouragement) have planned an offensive to reclaim Basra from these rogue militias. Besides the violence, there’s the problem of corrupt militias having control of the city’s valuable ports. And as the Iraqi general in charge of southern Iraq argued, the militias has to be moved out before the elections this fall, or they might forever take hold. So the offensive was finally launched this week, with Iraqi forces moving in on the ground with British and U.S. support by air. It came as a surprise to no one, even Sadr’s people, one of whom tells The Los Angeles Times that Sadr has initially agreed to support the crackdown, provided that it targeted ‘outlaws.'” But now Mahdi representatives say that the offensive is not so “targeted.” And Sadr issued a statement two weeks ago permitting the Mahdi Army to fire on U.S. and Iraqi forces in self-defense. So no matter the talk of “outlaws,” everyone perceives this as a hit against Sadr. So now it’s chaos, as the operation deepens in Basra and there are clashes in Baghdad — where the Iraqi forces are also attacking “special groups” (as an American official calls them, meaning Shiite militias with Iranian backing) with American support. Shiite insurgents have responded in part by firing rockets into the Green Zone. There’s also a good deal of violence between the rival Shiite militias in Baghdad and elsewhere.
In other words, Sadr was willing to work with the current government but Maliki say this as opportunity to crush Sadr. This appears to be very destabilizing with much of the real reporting being put forward over at the blog of Juan Cole. Iraq may be heading for civil war and with the inept leadership of George W. Bush, our hands will be stained with the ensuing blood. Why we didn’t leave Iraq a couple of years ago is beyond me. Oh yea – now I remember. We as a people were stupid enough to give Bush-Cheney a second term.