- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tribal leaders in southern Iraq are starting to push back against Iranian-supported militias in Basra, cracking their hold over the economically crucial province, Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker said yesterday at two separate roundtable interviews with reporters.

The militia led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr “is something that has to be dealt with,” said Gen. Petraeus at a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon.

“The population has turned against the militia in most areas in Basra. Interestingly, it has turned against them in a number of areas in Baghdad as well,” the top U.S. commander in Iraq said, though he cautioned that turning against the militias does not necessarily mean that the population “will act on it.”

Mr. Crocker said he had returned from a recent visit “sobered by the extent … the militias had free rein in Basra.”

The U.S. envoy added that he got “an earful” of complaints from southern sheiks about the behavior of the militias, who are believed to be influenced and supplied by Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “tapped into this” frustration and the Iraqis now are “standing up tribal lines as contract security forces” to help battle the Shi’ite militias, Mr. Crocker said, although he did not say whether these tribal forces had participated in the battles in Basra in the last two weeks.

Meanwhile, in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, gunmen yesterday killed a senior aide to Sheik al-Sadr, a pro-Iran cleric who nominally controls militias from Basra to Baghdad that are clashing with U.S. and coalition forces.

The aide, Riyadh al-Nouri, was killed as he drove home after attending prayers. Authorities in Najaf immediately announced a citywide curfew and deployed security forces on the streets, the Associated Press reported.

The cleric’s office issued a statement in which Sheik al-Sadr promised he would not “forget this precious blood” but urged his followers to “be patient,” called for “an investigation [to] punish the criminals. We call upon all political and religious groups to work toward ending the killing of clerics.”

But still, Sheik al-Sadr blamed the killing on “the hands of the occupiers and their stooges reaching out traitorously and aggressively against our dear martyr.”

Gen. Petraeus, who called the al-Nouri killing a “cause for significant concern,” said he did not know the “basis” for Sheik al-Sadr’s statement, as the U.S. has no forces in Najaf and it “is under provincial Iraqi control.”

“I’m sure that there will be pledges to bring to justice whoever it was that carried out this murderous action,” he said, adding that he also expected “rapid efforts among the leaders of the different parties to communicate with each other and to work together to preserve the calm that has prevailed in Najaf.”

He added that this is “an act that we condemn, as do all other Iraqi leaders and coalition forces.”

Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, condemned “this savage crime” and ordered an investigation “to pursue and arrest the killers,” but many of the thousands of mourners at Mr. al-Nouri’s funeral later yesterday chanted “al-Maliki is the enemy of God.”

The killing came as U.S. troops battle their way into Sheik al-Sadr’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City and less than two weeks after a showdown between his Shi’ite militias and Iraqi forces in Basra.

Mr. al-Maliki’s decision at the end of March to confront the militias in Basra and regain control of Iraq’s second-largest city has been praised by U.S. officials. He also won a measure of political support from Sunni and Kurdish groups, and gained credibility from some Shi’ites fed up with the militias’ violent street tactics.

Although Sheik al-Sadr is able to rally large numbers of armed supporters, the level of his control over all the militia who claim loyalty to him has been questioned. A U.S. defense official familiar with Sheik al-Sadr said that the sheik has been viewed as “erratic” by both the Iranians and some of his own people.

But he remains an important political figure; his followers walked out of the current Cabinet and still hold a strong bloc in the Iraqi parliament.

“He is a significant political figure, and clearly, if he is willing to work within — we want him to work within the political process in Iraq,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday he felt Sheik al-Sadr was “somewhat of an enigma” and it was not clear what would happen next.

“I think Sadr clearly is a very important and key player in all this. Exactly where he’s headed and what impact he’ll have long-term I think is out there still to be determined,” Adm. Mullen said.

In 2004, Sheik al-Sadr’s followers led an uprising against the U.S. and Iraqi authorities that quickly spread through central and southern Iraq before it was crushed in Najaf. His followers also helped to push the country to civil war with attacks against Sunnis after a Shi’ite holy mosque in Samarra was bombed in February 2006.

Despite the influence and weapons Iran has provided the Shi’ite militias, Mr. Crocker said, Iranians were not going to take over Iraq.

“My sense is the harder they push, the more resistance they encounter,” he said at a breakfast meeting with reporters.

President Bush yesterday said he has no intention of attacking Iran but said he would act to protect Americans or Iraqis from Iranian actions in neighboring Iraq.

“The message to the Iranians is: We will bring you to justice if you continue to try to infiltrate, send your agents or send surrogates to bring harm to our troops and/or the Iraqi citizens,” he said in an interview with ABC News.

Asked for details on that “justice” meant, Mr. Bush replied: “It means capture or kill, is what that means.”

In the same interview, Mr. Bush said the U.S. has no intention of attacking Iran in the dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. When ABC asked whether it was his intention not to attack Iran, he responded: “exactly.” He elaborated that while “I have always said all options need to be on the table my first effort is to solve this issue diplomatically.”

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