Fierce gunbattles erupted between U.S.- backed Iraqi security forces and supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra, Baghdad...
BAGHDAD — Fierce gunbattles erupted between U.S.- backed Iraqi security forces and supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra, Baghdad and other cities Tuesday, undermining a long-term truce that has helped reduce the level of violence in the five-year-old Iraq war.
In the southern oil-hub city of Basra, Iraq’s major port, at least 31 people were killed as the government began a citywide crackdown on armed groups in areas controlled by al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army.
Sadr City, the Baghdad district that is the center of the Mahdi Army’s power, was sealed off by Iraqi and American troops. Gunfire could be heard inside the sprawling slum from the checkpoints on the outskirts.
Meanwhile, a barrage of rockets slammed into Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone for the second time in three days. The U.S. military says the rockets are a signature weapon of Iran-funded groups in the Mahdi Army.
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The clashes were the most serious challenge to the government in months and raised fears the cease-fire declared last August may be unraveling as factions of the Shiite Muslim majority jockey for position ahead of upcoming provincial elections.
Brig. Gen. Ed Cardon, assistant commander of the U.S. task force operating south of Baghdad, said the situation in the south was “very complicated” and “the potential for miscalculation is high.”
U.S. commanders say the cease-fire played a key part in a 60 percent drop in attacks nationwide since the troop buildup ordered last year by President Bush reached its height in June. Al-Sadr renewed the cease-fire for another six months in February, but told his militiamen they could defend themselves against attacks.
The showdown with al-Sadr has been brewing for months but has accelerated since parliament agreed in February to hold provincial elections in October. The U.S. had been pressing for new elections to give Sunnis, who boycotted the last provincial balloting three years ago, a chance for greater power. Al-Sadr’s followers have also been eager for elections, believing they can make significant gains in the oil-rich Shiite south at the expense of Shiite parties with close U.S. ties.
Al-Sadr’s followers claim the Americans and their Iraqi allies have taken advantage of the cease-fire to arrest hundreds of al-Sadr’s followers.
In Basra, which the British handed over to Iraqi control in December, sweeps were launched at dawn, ostensibly to rid the city of militias and criminal gangs.
The government deployed 15,000 army and police, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top ministers were in the city monitoring the operation. Witnesses in Basra said that throughout the day, American jets flew overhead, armored vehicles raced through the city and machine-gun and cannon fire reverberated through the streets.
Al-Sadr loyalists accuse his Shiite rivals in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa party of using the Iraqi army and police to round up the cleric’s followers ahead of the elections.
They also complain that few of their followers have been granted amnesty under a new law designed to free thousands held by the Iraqis and Americans.
“The police and army are being used for political goals, while they should be used for the benefits of all the Iraqi people,” said Nassar al-Rubaei, leader of the Sadrist bloc in parliament.
Sadr-allied lawmakers walked out of parliament Tuesday after condemning the operation as a political move to hand the south to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
The Supreme Council is the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq, but it trails the Sadrist movement in popularity among Shiites. Al-Sadr founded the militia soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It has grown into one of the most powerful armed groups in Iraq by offering both protection and social-welfare services to impoverished Shiites.
The Mahdi Army became known for execution-style killings and kidnappings in tit-for-tat sectarian violence provoked by the February 2006 bombing of an important Shiite mosque in Samarra.
The Sadrists want U.S. and Iraqi troops to stop the raids, release their followers from detention and apologize for unspecified violations against dignitaries, Shiite clans and women.
The U.S. military is careful not to criticize al-Sadr, but says Iran is training breakaway cells it calls “special groups,” arming them with rockets and deadly armor-piercing roadside bombs. Iran denies the allegations. Last year, al-Sadr fled to Iran, fearing arrest after a U.S.-led security crackdown. His current whereabouts are kept secret.
Al-Sadr, whose 30 supporters in Parliament are the largest bloc in that body, threatened to call for a vote of no confidence in the government of al-Maliki, and announced a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience to protest the escalating government crackdown against his movement’s rank and file.
Al-Maliki was elected prime minister in 2006 by an alliance of Shiite parties thanks in part to al-Sadr’s support. He has hesitated to openly confront the movement. That appears to have changed, said Saad al-Hadithi, a political-science professor at Baghdad University.
“Violence is increasing day by day because the different factions are trying to cement their power on the ground to ensure their victory in those local elections,” al-Hadithi said.
He was optimistic that Iraq would not return to the vicious cycle of violence that brought the country near civil war.
“Now the violence is confined within a single sect,” al-Hadithi said.
But Maj. Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for the U.S. brigade responsible for Sadrist strongholds in east Baghdad, said he feared recent security gains could come undone if violence escalates. He emphasized that U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad were targeting only rogue factions within the Mahdi Army that are not observing the cease-fire.
“We’ve worked so hard for this,” he said. “Why let it unravel for a misunderstanding?”
Compiled from USA Today, McClatchy Newspapers, The Associated Press, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reports