US aids Iraq security forces with air strikes
By By Steve Negus, Iraq correspondent, and Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
Published: March 28 2008 18:20 | Last updated: March 28 2008 18:20
President George W. Bush on Friday called the Iraqi government offensive in Basra a “defining moment” as violence continued to spread across the country and US troops were forced to send reinforcements to help Iraqi security forces.
“I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq,” Mr Bush said. “This happens to be one of the provinces where the Iraqis are in the lead…and this is a good test for them.”
Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has stressed that the operation is primarily targeting ”lawless gangs” in the southern port city of Basra, but fighting has spread to other cities, with members of the Madhi Army, a group of Shia militants loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, staging solidarity attacks.
Militias on Friday appeared to have seized control of the centre of the southern provincial capital of Nasiriya, while heavy fighting has also been reported in the towns of Kut, Amara, Diwaniya, and Hilla and in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. Militants in Baghdad have also kept up a heavy barrage of rockets and mortars at the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Iraqi security forces admitted on Friday that they were having difficulties subduing radical Shia militants. The death toll in the four days of fighting since Mr Maliki launched operation “Sawlat al-Fursan”, or Charge of the Knights, is unclear, but appears to have risen at least above 200.
While Mr Bush said the Iraqis were taking the lead in the operation, coalition forces were required to provide reinforcements on Friday, including air strikes at militants in Basra and Baghdad.
”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,” Abd al-Qader Jassim, the Iraqi defence minister, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Stephen Biddle, an Iraq expert and former adviser to General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, said the situation in Basra was “very serious”. He said the US was not clear whether Mr Maliki was targeting rogue elements of the Madhi army or taking on the mainstream faction of the umbrella group loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric.
Mr Biddle said another possibility was that Mr Maliki was taking the opportunity to crack down on political opponents ahead of provincial elections later this year. That would be the most dangerous scenario, he added, since it could jeopardise the ceasefires by the Madhi army loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, and also by Sunni “local concerned citizens”.
Mr Maliki’s office on Friday said Basra residents had until April 8 to hand over heavy arms in return for cash bounties. The deadline is separate from an earlier ultimatum announced on Wednesday which gave gunmen 72 hours to surrender their weapons.
Iraq experts expressed concern that Mr Maliki had not co-ordinated the operation closely with the coalition, which some said could jeopardise its success. Mr Bush said he was unaware what trigged the timing of the offensive.
“I haven’t spoken to the prime minister since he’s made his decision, but I suspect that he would say, ”Look, the citizens down there just got sick and tired of this kind of behaviour,” said Mr Bush.
Unraveling Iraq: Mehdi Army seizes de-facto control of Kut, Amara, Nasiriya, Diwaniya, Hilla, Sadr City …
March 28, 2008 by E. Cartman