Monday 24 March 2008
Simultaneously, in the strategic southern port city of Basra, where Sadr's Mahdi militia is in control, the Iraqi government launched a crackdown in the face of warnings by Sadr's followers that they'll fight government forces if any Sadrists are detained. By 1 a.m. Arab satellite news channels reported clashes between the Mahdi Army and police in Basra.
The freeze on offensive activity by Sadr's Mahdi Army has been a major factor behind the recent drop in violence in Iraq, and there were fears that the confrontation that's erupted in Baghdad and Basra could end the lull in attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and bombings.
As the U.S. military recorded its 4,000th death in Iraq, U.S. officials in Baghdad warned again Monday that drawing down troops too quickly could collapse Iraq's fragile security situation.
Pentagon officials said that military leaders are watching for any signs of backsliding as they consider whether to keep drawing down troops below pre-surge levels.
President Bush spoke about the death toll, saying, "One day, people will look back at this moment in history and say, 'Thank God there were courageous people willing to serve, because they laid the foundations for peace for generations to come.'"
Even as he spoke, the situation on the ground was rapidly worsening.
On Sunday, a barrage of at least 17 rockets hit the heavily fortified Green Zone and surrounding neighborhoods, where both the U.S. and Iraqi government headquarters are housed, according to police. Most of them were launched from the outskirts of Sadr City and Bayaa, both Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhoods.
On Monday, the Sadrists all but shut down the neighborhoods they control on the west bank of Baghdad. Gunmen went to stores and ordered them to close as militiamen stood in the streets. Mosques used their loudspeakers to urge people to come forward and join the protest.
Fliers were distributed with the Sadrists' three demands of the Iraqi government: to release detainees, stop targeting Sadrist members and apologize to the families and the tribal sheiks of the men.
The Iraqi security forces issued a statement promising to deal with those who terrorized shopkeepers and students.
"It's an open sit-in until the government responds to our demands. If the government doesn't respond, we will have our own procedures," said Hamdallah al Rikabi, the head of the Sadr offices in Karkh, in western Baghdad.
In the southern port city of Basra, where Shiite groups are battling for power, the Mahdi Army is the most feared force. The British military pulled out of the city late last year, leaving the city in the militia's hands.
The Iraqi government announced a three-day security plan, beginning 5 p.m. Tuesday, to seal Basra off from other governorates and countries, shut down schools and all institutes of education and ban vehicles from entering the province. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, as well as the ministers of defense and interior, were in Basra on Monday.
Since Sadr froze his militia on Aug. 29 and renewed the freeze in February, militia members and Sadrists have railed against the government for targeting and detaining their members. In Basra, Sadr's office rejected the security plan and warned that it'll react if attacked or if Iraqi forces detain more Sadrists.
As Shiite violence rises, U.S. troop deaths also appear to be rising in places such as Baghdad, where the American military is thinning out its presence as part of its drawdown of five brigades. Attacks against civilians in the capital are rising, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy. Next week, the U.S. will finish pulling out the second of five surge brigades. As part of the drawdown, the military has moved battalions out of Baghdad toward more violent areas such as the northern city of Mosul and Iraq's northeastern Diyala province.
As the troop presence has shifted, so has the violence. For the first time since January, a majority of U.S. troops were killed in Baghdad, not in outlying northern provinces. Indeed, the U.S. military reached the death of its 4,000th soldier in Iraq on Sunday, when four U.S. soldiers were killed in southern Baghdad.
So far, this month, 27 soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Of those, 16, or 59 percent, died in Baghdad. In January, 25 percent of U.S. deaths happened in Baghdad, or 10 of 40.
Civilian casualties in Baghdad are also on the rise, according to a McClatchy count. After a record low through November, when at least 76 people were killed and 306 were injured, the deaths began to rise. In December, it crept up to 88 people killed, in January 100 and in February 172. As of March 24, at least 149 people were killed and 448 were injured.
Youssef reported from Washington. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi reported from Baghdad and Ali al Basri reported from Basra.
Sadr Followers Shutter Stores, Plan Rallies
By Sholnn Freeman
The Washington Post
Tuesday 25 March 2008
Strike launched in protest of targeted raids, arrests by Iraqi security forces.
Baghdad - Followers of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr launched a civil strike Monday to protest raids and mass arrests by Iraq's security forces, underscoring the growing frustrations of Sadr's group, which U.S. military officials say is playing a key role in keeping down violence in Iraq.
In some Baghdad neighborhoods, Sadrist leaders called on shopkeepers to shut their stores and for bus and taxi drivers to cease operations. Fadhil al-Bahadli, head of Sadr's office in the al-Amil district in southwest Baghdad, said followers were planning demonstrations over the next three days.
"We want security and we want to release detainees," said Qais al-Karbalaie, a spokesman for Sadr's office in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah enclave. "Our major reasons for this civil strike are the release of detainees and to stop random arrests."
A cease-fire imposed by Sadr on his Mahdi Army militia is widely viewed as a major reason for the drop in violence across Iraq in recent months, along with a U.S. troop buildup and the rise of a Sunni movement that has turned against Islamist extremists. But in recent weeks, Iraqi security forces have clashed with Mahdi Army militiamen and conducted large raids and arrests of Sadr followers in southern Iraqi towns such as Kut and Diwaniyah. Sadrist leaders in Baghdad said that they were still obeying the cease-fire and that the demonstrations would be peaceful.
The protests came a day after at least 60 Iraqis were killed in a wave of car bombings, suicide attacks and gun violence, and the U.S. military death toll reached 4,000.
On Monday, Iraqi television news carried images of houses destroyed when shells fell short in Sunday's mortar and rocket assault on the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government facilities are located.
In a statement Monday, the U.S. military said the forensics, size and marking of the rounds indicated they were Iranian-made and that the tactics, techniques and procedures employed in the attack were "all related to the training and tactics of special groups" trained by Iranian operatives.
U.S. commanders often use the term "special groups" to refer to so-called rogue elements of the Mahdi Army who are not adhering to Sadr's cease-fire. Iran has long denied U.S. allegations that it is a source of weapons, financing and training of Shiite militias to foment instability inside Iraq.
On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the southern port city of Basra to assess new security measures for one of the country's most volatile areas. The new measures include closing off land access to the city from Tuesday through Thursday and imposing a nighttime curfew until further notice. The government ordered schools, institutes and universities to cancel classes Tuesday through Thursday and banned all movement of vehicles to Basra from other provinces until further notice.
Violence has gripped Basra since December, when British troops handed over control of the province to the Iraqi government.
"He went to see on the ground the real factors affecting the security there. He is going to take action," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki. "We should not leave the security of people to be threatened by gangs and by murderers."
Iraq, he added, had to be "careful and take care of Basra" so that it didn't fall under the influence of its neighbors.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.
Iraq Forces Battle Basra Militias
Tuesday 25 March 2008
Heavy fighting has been raging in Basra as thousands of Iraqi troops battle Shia militias in the southern city.
At least nine people have died in the operation, which is being overseen in Basra by Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki, a day after he vowed to "re-impose law".
Tanks and artillery are being used - with British forces providing air support to the Iraqi troops.
Oil-rich Basra is in the grip of a bitter turf war between armed groups, including the Mehdi Army, say analysts.
The Mehdi Army - which supports radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr - called a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience against recent arrests of its followers.
The powerful militia declared a truce last August which had been credited with helping restore stability to parts of Iraq.
The BBC's Adam Brookes says three Iraqi army brigades were deployed from Baghdad to Basra as back-up for the operation, and that up to 15,000 troops could be involved.
Coalition aircraft patrolling the skies above Basra have carried out air strikes to help the embattled Iraqi troops below.
Some of the fiercest fighting has focused on Mehdi Army strongholds.
Of the nine suspected militants known to have been killed so far, four died in street fighting and five in an air strike.
British military spokesman Maj Tom Holloway told the BBC no UK troops were involved on the ground.
The UK military returned control of Basra to the Iraqis in December and concentrated its forces at the city airport.
The Iraqi commander in charge, Lt Gen Ali Ghaidan, said the operation aimed to purge Basra of what he called "outlaws".
He said his forces had confiscated weapons and roadside bombs during raids across Iraq's second city.
Routes into Basra have been sealed off, according to reports.
One Basra resident told the BBC: "The streets are very dangerous, there's continuous exchange of fire in areas very close to my house, even though my neighbourhood is relatively safer than others."
The offensive comes a day after the authorities in Basra imposed an indefinite night-time curfew.
Moqtada Sadr last month renewed its ceasefire, under which it pledged not to attack rival armed groups or American forces in Iraq.
But the truce is said to have come under strain in recent weeks as US and Iraqi forces detained militia members.
On Tuesday, police also imposed a curfew in the southern Iraqi city of Kut, amid reports of clashes between gunmen and security forces.
In Baghdad's Sadr City, Mehdi Army fighters reportedly ordered Iraqi police and soldiers out of the district.
Hundreds of protesters marched in Baghdad to launch a campaign of civil disobedience, calling on shops to shut.
Moqtada Sadr said in a statement: "We call upon all Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over Iraq as a first step.
"And if the people's demands are not respected by the Iraqi government, the second step will be to declare civil revolt in Baghdad and all other provinces."
In recent months there have been a number of assassinations and kidnappings in Basra, as armed groups vie for control of lucrative oil-smuggling routes, say correspondents.
The oil fields around the Basra area are the source of most of Iraq's revenues.