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US Airstrikes Kill Civilians In Iraq As Civil War Looms

Shiite leader al-Sadr defies Iraq gov’t

AP
March 29, 2008

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1a4s458mDMs

Anti-American Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers Saturday to defy government orders to surrender their weapons, as U.S. jets struck Shiite extremists near Basra to bolster a faltering Iraqi offensive against gunmen in the city.Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged he may have miscalculated by failing to foresee the strong backlash that his offensive, which began Tuesday, provoked in areas of Baghdad and other cities where Shiite militias wield power.Government television said the round-the-clock curfew imposed two days ago on the capital and due to expire Sunday would be extended indefinitely. Gunfire and explosions were heard late Saturday in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.The U.S. Embassy tightened its security measures, ordering all staff to use armored vehicles for all travel in the Green Zone and to sleep in reinforced buildings until further notice after six days of rocket and mortar attacks that left two Americans dead.Despite the mounting crisis, al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, vowed to remain in Basra until government forces wrest control from militias, including the Mahdi Army. He called the fight for control of Basra “a decisive and final battle.”British ground troops, who controlled the city until handing it over to the Iraqis last December, also joined the battle for Basra, firing artillery Saturday for the first time in support of Iraqi forces.

Iraqi authorities have given Basra extremists until April 8 to surrender heavy and medium weapons after an initial 72-hour ultimatum to hand them over was widely ignored.

But a defiant al-Sadr called on his followers Saturday to ignore the order, saying that his Mahdi Army would turn in its weapons only to a government that can “get the occupier out of Iraq,” referring to the Americans.

The order was made public by Haidar al-Jabiri, a member of the influential political commission of the Sadrist movement.

Al-Sadr, in an interview aired Saturday by Al-Jazeera television, said his Mahdi Army was capable of “liberating Iraq” and maintained al-Maliki’s government was as “distant” from the people as Saddam Hussein’s.

Residents of Basra contacted by telephone said Mahdi militiamen were manning checkpoints Saturday in their neighborhood strongholds. The sound of intermittent mortar and machine gun fire rang out across the city, as the military headquarters at a downtown hotel came under repeated fire.

An Iraqi army battalion commander and two of his bodyguards were killed Saturday night by a roadside bomb in central Basra, military spokesman Col. Karim al-Zaidi said.

The fight for Basra is crucial for al-Maliki, who flew to Basra earlier this week and is staking his credibility on gaining control of Iraq’s second-largest city, which has essentially been held by armed groups for nearly three years.

In a speech Saturday to tribal leaders in Basra, al-Maliki promised to “stand up to these gangs” not only in the south but throughout Iraq.

Iraqi officials and their American partners have long insisted that the crackdown was not directed at al-Sadr’s movement but against criminals and renegade factions — some of whom are allegedly tied to Iran.

Al-Maliki told tribal leaders that the offensive in Basra “was only to deal with these gangs” — some of which he said “are worse than al-Qaida.”

Without mentioning the Sadrists by name, al-Maliki said he was “surprised to see that party emerge with all the weapons available to it and strike at everything — institutions, people, departments, police stations and the army.”

Al-Sadr’s followers have accused rival Shiite parties in the national government of trying to crush their movement before provincial elections this fall. The young cleric’s lieutenants had warned repeatedly that any move to dislodge them from Basra would provoke bloodshed.

But al-Maliki’s comments appeared to reinforce suspicions that his government failed to foresee the backlash, including a sharp upsurge in violence throughout the Shiite south and shelling of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, the nerve center of the Iraqi leadership and the U.S. mission.

Two American soldiers were killed Saturday when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

The growing turmoil threatens to undermine White House efforts to convince a skeptical Congress and the American public that the Iraqis are making progress toward managing their own security without the presence of U.S. troops.

Read Full Article Here

 


Iraqi police in Basra shed their uniforms, kept their rifles and switched sides

Uruknet
March 28, 2008

Abu Iman barely flinched when the Iraqi Government ordered his unit of special police to move against al-Mahdi Army fighters in Basra.

His response, while swift, was not what British and US military trainers who have spent the past five years schooling the Iraqi security forces would have hoped for. He and 15 of his comrades took off their uniforms, kept their government-issued rifles and went over to the other side without a second thought.

Such turncoats are the thread that could unravel the British Army’s policy in southern Iraq. The military hoped that local forces would be able to combat extremists and allow the Army to withdraw gradually from the battle-scarred and untamed oil city that has fallen under the sway of Islamic fundamentalists, oil smugglers and petty tribal warlords. But if the British taught the police to shoot straight, they failed to instil a sense of unwavering loyalty to the State.

“We know the outcome of the fighting in advance because we already defeated the British in the streets of Basra and forced them to withdraw to their base,” Abu Iman told The Times.

“If we go back a bit, everyone remembers the fight with the US in Najaf and the damage and defeat we inflicted on them. Do you think the Iraqi Army is better than those armies? We are right and the Government is wrong. [Nouri al] Maliki [the Iraqi Prime Minister] is driving his Government into the ground.”

The reason for his apparent switch of sides was simple: the 36-year-old was already a member of the al-Mahdi Army which, like other militias, has massively infiltrated the British-trained police force in the southern oil city. He claimed that hundreds of others from the 16,000-strong force have also defected to the rebels’ ranks.Abu Iman joined the new Iraqi police force after the invasion, joining the Mugawil, a special police unit infamous for brutality, kidnapping and sectarian murders.

“We already heard two weeks ago that we were going to attack the Mahdi Army, so we were ready,” he said. “I decided to take off my uniform and join my brothers and friends in the Mahdi Army. All these years, we were like a scream in the face of the dictator and the occupation.” He said: “I joined the police because I believed we have to protect Basra and save it with our own hands. You can see we were the first fighters to take on Sadd-am and his regime, the best example being the Shabaniya uprising.”

Abu Iman said that the fighting raging in Basra yesterday was intense because the al-Mahdi Army was operating on its own turf. He was confident that the Shia militia would prevail because its cause was just.

“The Iraqi Army is already defeated from within. They come to Basra with fear in their hearts, knowing they have to fight their brothers, the sons of Iraq, because of an order from Bush and his friends in the Iraq Government. For this reason, all of the battles are going in the Mahdi Army’s favour.”

Major-General Abdelaziz Moham-med Jassim, the director of operations at the Ministry of Defence, played down reports of defections in the Basra police force. “The problem of one policeman doesn’t make up for the whole of the force,” he said.

In recent months Major-General Abdul Jalil Khalaf, Basra’s police chief, has tried to shake up the force and drive out militia infiltrators, who have wrought havoc in the past, often turning police stations into torture cells in which factions settled vendettas and power struggles with murder and abuse. But he only narrowly escaped an assassination attempt yesterday when a suicide car bomb attack in Basra killed three of his policemen. A local tribal leader said the police directorate building was later gutted by fire.

 

Mahdi Army holds firm as Iraqi PM risks all in battle of Basra

The Sunday Times
March 30, 2008

THE arrival of the Iraqi army supported by US warplanes did little to dent the defiance of Abu Sajad and his 22 comrades in a Shi’ite militia cell holed up in a mosque in Basra.

Alerted by a mobile phone call to the arrival of US military reinforcements, Abu Sajad calmly selected eight fighters and dispatched them to plant roadside bombs packed into red plastic fruit crates.

“We are to plant them throughout the Qaziza neighbourhood to welcome the army when they try to enter the area,” he told his men. He sent the bombers away on scooters and motorcycles which, he explained, were “quicker to move and less conspicuous . . . We have a great surprise for the army”.

As night fell after a fifth day of heavy fighting around Basra yesterday, Iraqi forces controlled by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, were still struggling to subdue renegade Shi’ite fighters whose shifting loyalties and challenges to Baghdad rule have begun to pose a serious threat to American and British strategy.

Ragtag members of the Mahdi Army, a heavily armed militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric with close links to Iran, vowed to fight to the death to prevent Maliki from imposing government control on the southern port at the heart of Iraq’s potentially hugely profitable oil industry.

“We have received a shipment of Strela antiaircraft rockets,” Abu Sajad boasted to a Sunday Times reporter.

“We intend to use them to prove to the world that the Mahdi Army will not allow Basra to be turned into a second Falluja [the former centre of anticoalition resistance that was crushed by US-led assaults].” President George W Bush praised Maliki and described the clashes as a “defining moment” for the Baghdad government’s attempts to curb Sadr’s influence and assert its own authority. But despite Bush’s approval, American officials are concerned that Maliki’s military gamble may cause serious embarrassment for the coalition forces.

US officials said the Iraqi prime minister had launched the assault on Tuesday without consulting Washington, but yesterday it was the Americans under fire again after claims that eight civilians had been killed in a US bombing raid.

The SAS was in Basra alongside Iraqi commanders, calling in attacks from RAF and US aircraft on “enemy combatants” as the death toll from five days of fighting across Iraq rose above 300, with hundreds wounded.

British artillery units destroyed a militia mortar position in support of Iraqi forces yesterday, a spokesman said. The mortar, in the al-Hala district of northern Basra, was positively identified by the British before they opened fire from their base at Basra international airport.

Basra’s hospitals filled with civilian casualties and the violence continued to spread through other cities, including the suburbs of Baghdad. The coalition’s five-year effort to bolster Iraqi democracy was under threat from factional strife on a difficult urban battlefield where rebel gunmen have long held sway on streets too narrow for armoured vehicles.

Maliki had flown to Basra to take personal control of the military operation. But instead of sweeping to a decisive victory with American guns at his side, he was stumbling into something that looked dangerously like stalemate yesterday.

Having originally imposed a 72-hour deadline for rebels to hand in their weapons, he was forced to extend it until April 8. Yesterday he vowed to remain in Basra until the resistance was crushed. “This is a decisive and final battle,” he said.

Sadr issued an equally robust directive, ordering his fighters to ignore Maliki’s ultimatum.

At stake in Basra was not just the prime minister’s reputation, his prospects for provincial elections this autumn and control of the Iraqi oil fields, but also an entire coalition strategy of reduced troop levels, steady withdrawal and the turning over of Iraqi security to local troops.

If Maliki’s crackdown fails, both London and Washington may have to reassess Iraqi army capabilities and the risk of future disaster if coalition forces continue to withdraw. “This is a precarious situation,” one US official said yesterday. “There’s a lot to be gained and a lot to lose.”

Already this weekend there were reports that police officers and soldiers had left their posts, changed their uniforms and joined the Mahdi Army.

When a local journalist left his home in Basra this weekend to visit the city’s main hospital, he found the streets deserted except for cruising police vehicles whose occupants were randomly firing in the air.

He eventually hitched a ride with an ambulance carrying a 14-year-old boy whose leg had nearly been severed by a burst of machinegun fire. “Most of the injured are being hurt by gunshots and rocket shrapnel that hits their homes,” the driver said.

Inside the hospital, blood-stained bandages were scattered across the floor. A 50-year-old woman was sobbing. Doctors said she had been told three hours earlier that her daughter had died from gunshot wounds and she had not stopped crying.

In a ward on the first floor, patients were groaning in pain. Doctors had run out of pain-killers and many pharmacies in the city were closed.

“The stench was awful in the wards and corridors,” the journalist said. “Patients and family members were cursing the government in both Basra and Baghdad and some were even lamenting the ‘good old days’ of Saddam Hussein.”

The situation at another hospital was so dire that Leith Chasseb, a 36-year-old civil servant, could not find a doctor to treat his father, who had a shrapnel wound to his leg.

In the al-Tamimiyeh district, Um Hiba, a 38-year-old mother of three, was standing with two of her daughters in the garden when a mortar exploded nearby, injuring all three of them. “We called the ambulance but they couldn’t get to us,” she said. “The neighbours supplied us with bandages.”

Dr Salah Amad, director of the city’s medical operations, said hospitals were about to collapse because of exhausted doctors and a lack of supplies. “Ambulances are unable to distribute medical supplies stocked in warehouses,” he said.

There were conflicting accounts of the incident in Basra’s Hananiyah district, where two women and a child were reportedly among eight civilians killed by an air strike. Iraqi police claimed that a US aircraft had carried out the strike, but British planes were also seen in the area.

There was no immediate comment from either British or US military spokesmen. American aircraft carried out further raids yesterday, dropping two precision-guided bombs on a suspected militia stronghold north of Basra.

In a separate raid, Iraqi special forces were said to have stormed a house in Basra, killing a father and his three sons, the youngest aged 13, in front his wife.

Maliki’s decision to crack down on Basra followed at least three years of rebel subversion that British troops had quelled for long periods but never eradicated. US officers often criticised their British counterparts for their hands-off approach in Basra, but nobody in Washington was inclined last week to blame London for a crisis rooted in internal Shi’ite rivalries and almost certainly beyond any coalition-imposed solution.

Yet the British withdrawal from Basra – leaving the city effectively in the hands of Maliki’s opponents – presented the prime minister with a difficult challenge. He could ill afford to allow Iraq’s second city to remain in the hands of extremist factions. “Basra has been a mess for a long time,” one US official in Baghdad told The Washington Post yesterday, “and everyone has said to Maliki, ‘What are you doing about it?’ ” With provincial elections looming in October and his authority on the line, Maliki took advantage of the security lull spawned by the so-called “surge” – the increased US military presence directed by General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq. Under pressure to demonstrate that Iraqi forces were capable of operating without US officers holding their hands, he sent his army into battle.

Some national and local officials complained that the offensive had come as an unpleasant surprise. “Maliki did not consult the president, he did not consult the cabinet, he did not consult the parliament,” said a senior member of the government. “Nobody is happy with what’s happening.”

It was not long before US aircraft were reported to be mounting air strikes on Basra and US troops in armoured vehicles appeared to be taking the lead against Mahdi Army fighters in their vast Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.

As rockets fell on Baghdad’s Green Zone, the comparative calm that had enveloped the city for weeks – allowing residents to sit in street cafes – was shattered. US officials insisted that this was not their fight and their only role was to provide Maliki with back-up if he needed it.

Some officials even suggested that the Basra operation would prove a model for future cooperation, with Iraqis taking the leading role and American troops adopting what Petraeus once described as “overwatch” mode.

Yet as the week wore on the American unease was palpable, not least because nobody seemed entirely sure who was fighting whom and what was the ultimate prize.

While some officials interpreted the offensive as Maliki’s “first salvo in upcoming elections”, others saw a simple power grab for oil. The intricate differences between rival Shi’ite groups in Basra and their presumed links to Iran were all minutely examined by intelligence officers. Yet on Friday one administration official admitted: “We can’t quite decipher what’s going on.”

If Maliki can somehow crush the resistance of the Mahdi Army, he may well prove to be the answer to America’s prayers for a leader with the muscle and authority to keep a lid on Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries and ultimately to allow the US military to withdraw.

Yet Mahdi warriors such as Haidar Abdul Abbas did not look too worried about defeat last week. A 24-year-old expert at firing rocket-propelled grenades, Abbas was wearing funeral shrouds, signalling his willingness to die in combat.

“The Maliki government is now fighting on behalf of the [coalition] occupiers, forgetting that history is never kind to those who oppress,” he said. “Their fate will be the same as that of Saddam.

Bush: Iraq is returning to normal
http://www.mcclatchydc.com/whitehouse/story/31825.html

Police refuse to support Iraqi PM’s attacks on Mehdi Army
http://www.independent..cks-on-mehdi-army-802361.html

British warplanes fire on Basra as civil war looms with Shia militia
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article3642863.ece

Basra militants ’worse than al-Qa’eda’, says Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/m..2008/03/29/wirq229.xml

Occupations are not won. They are ended
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbGY6txzM14

Fresh US airstrike kills 8 Iraqis
http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=49422&sectionid=351020201

Iraq’s Maliki backs off ultimatum to militants
http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20080329/wl_csm/osadr

Bush: Iraq violence is a ’very positive moment’
http://rawstory.com/news/200..positive_development_0327.html

Yesterday, 225 Iraqis, 4 Americans Were Killed; 538 Iraqis Hurt, Yet “Surge” Creator Says ’The Civil War in Iraq Is Over’
http://www.antiwar.com/updates/?articleid=12591

97% Of Deaths Came After Mission Accomplished
http://rawstory.com/news/2008/97_percent_of_US_death_toll_0324.html

Baghdad under 24-hour curfew as US is drawn into the violence
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/m..s/2008/03/28/wirq128.xml

Iraqi army suspected of committing mass executions
http://www.juancole.com/2008/03/dozen..lashes-mahdi-army.html

Troops To Stay In Afghanistan Until 2012
http://www.canada.com/news/story.html?id=401682

 


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