- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

U.S. military and counterterrorism officials say they expect clashes with Shi’ite militias in Basra to escalate in the upcoming weeks, but U.S. commanders are not likely to move forces into the region, leaving the Iraqi army to lead the fight.

The U.S. military has been providing air and liaison support to Iraqi forces for the past two days as the fighting intensified in both the southern city of Basra and Shi’ite neighborhoods of Baghdad, leading to the death of nearly 50 people in both cities and injuring nearly 200 in the battle.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been camping in Basra to monitor the crackdown, issued a warning to the Shi’ite militias yesterday that if they didn’t lay down weapons within the next 72 hours they would be facing severe consequences.

“The prime minister is personally leading the efforts,” a U.S. military official in Baghdad said. “We have some small liaison elements with them and will provide close air support if they request it, but no intent right now to move any forces closer or down there,” the official added. “Remember, this is a province that was turned over to Iraq.”

In Baghdad, several volleys of rockets slammed into the U.S.-protected Green Zone for the third day this week, and the U.S. Embassy said three Americans were seriously wounded, the Associated Press reported. At least eight Iraqis were killed elsewhere in the capital by rounds that apparently fell short, police said.

Two American soldiers were killed yesterday in separate attacks in Baghdad, the military said.

Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia agreed to a six-month cease-fire in August, and extended it by another six months from March 1. The current fighting in the oil city of Basra threatens to end that cease-fire.

The Sadrists are angry over recent raids and detentions, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces have taken advantage of the August cease-fire to crack down on the movement, the AP reported.

They have accused rival Shi’ite parties, which control Iraqi security forces, of engineering the arrests to prevent them from mounting an effective campaign after the Iraqi parliament agreed in February to hold provincial elections by the fall.

According to U.S. counterterrorism officials, Sheik al-Sadr’s militia is fractured and the various outlaw groups are operating without cohesion. Sheik al-Sadr does not have complete control of his group.

“The militias associated with Muqtada al-Sadr run the gamut from moderate to violent, and there doesn’t appear to be unified day-to-day command and control over them,” a counterterrorism official said. “As a result, some of the militias may feel emboldened to use violence. … So it’s entirely conceivable that we’ll see more violence from some [Mahdi Army] elements in the days and weeks to come.”

The fighting threatens to destabilize various parts of Iraq after relative calm over the past year, and poses serious challenges to the fledgling al-Maliki government.

Multi-National Forces-Iraq spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said yesterday the Iraqi government”s decision to send troops to Basra was targeted at criminal elements in the region and not the Mahdi Army.

Speaking to reporters, he said it was “completely” an Iraqi mission, with nearly 16,000 Iraqi police officers and 9,014 Iraqi army troops involved.

Mr. al-Maliki said that he took the actions because “the lawlessness is going on under religious or political cover along with smuggling of oil, weapons and drugs.”

Meanwhile, President Bush attended a 90-minute meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon yesterday to discuss the impact the Iraq and Afghan wars have on U.S. troops and overall global security threats, the Defense Department said.

Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, led the meeting that focused on “the stress of six-plus years of fighting the global war on terror” on the overall health of U.S. military personnel, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Defense officials say stress caused to troops by extended deployments; limited troops stretched far too thin and challenges confronting U.S. forces in Afghanistan — where intelligence suggests a resurgence of al Qaeda in the tribal regions — were topics discussed at the closed-door meeting.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, briefed the president on Monday, along with U.S. Central Command Chief Adm. William J. Fallon, whose last day in office is tomorrow.

Gen. Petraeus is preparing for his April testimony on progress in Iraq and Mr. Bush is expected to support the general’s decision to pause troop withdrawal beyond what’s planned.

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