The fighting has exposed a rift within the majority Shiite community and put pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose forces have failed to drive fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr off the streets of Iraq’s second-largest city.
Authorities shut down Baghdad with a strict curfew, but that did not halt rocket attacks and clashes in the capital. Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim acknowledged that Iraqi security forces had been caught off-guard by their foes. “We supposed that this operation would be a normal operation, but we were surprised by this resistance and have been obliged to change our plans and our tactics” he told a news conference in Basra. Reporters were brought to the briefing in military vehicles and kept inside because of clashes nearby. Parliament called an emergency meeting to end the impasse, but just 54 members of the 275-seat body managed to get inside the fortified “Green Zone” government and diplomatic compound, which was bombarded by rockets as they gathered.
One missile hit the Green Zone office of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, killing a security guard. The US Embassy ordered its staff in the zone to stay under cover when possible and wear body armor and helmets when in the open. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had given the Basra militants 72 hours to surrender, extended his deadline, giving them until April 8 to turn in their weapons for cash. The government says it is fighting “outlaws,” but Sadr’s followers say political parties in Maliki’s Shiite-led government are using military force to marginalize their rivals ahead of local elections due by October.
The Iraqi ground commander in Basra, Major-General Ali Zaidan, told Reuters his forces had killed 120 “enemy” fighters and wounded around 450 since the campaign began on Tuesday. But Reuters television footage from Basra showed masked gunmen from Sadr’s Mahdi Army still in control of the streets, openly carrying rocket launchers and machine guns. A British Ministry of Defense spokesman said US warplanes had opened fire in Basra for the first time, dropping bombs in support of Iraqi units on the direction of US or British control teams operating with Iraqis on the ground. British ground troops which patrolled Basra until December have so far remained on a base outside the city. The fighting has trapped Basra residents in their homes, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations said it was standing by with blood bags, trauma kits, 200 tons of emergency food and 39 million water purification tablets.
Sadr, who helped install Maliki in power after an election in 2005 but later broke with him, has called for talks. But Maliki has vowed to battle on with no negotiations. The clashes have all but wrecked a truce Sadr declared last year, which Washington had said helped curb violence. A Reuters witness said Mahdi Army gunmen had seized control of the southern city of Nassiriya. Mahdi Army fighters have also held territory or fought with authorities in Kut, Hilla, Amara, Kerbala, Diwaniya and other towns throughout the Shiite south over the past several days. In Baghdad there have been clashes in at least 13 mainly Shiite neighborhoods, especially Sadr City, the vast slum named for the cleric’s slain father and his main power base.