- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MUQDADIYAH, Iraq — A battle for control of oil-rich Basra, a second rocket attack on the Green Zone this week and the reappearance of armed followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr yesterday threatened recent security gains from the U.S. troop surge.

Gunfire and the sound of explosions could be heard throughout Basra, according to local reports saying up to 25 people had been killed in a battle between the Iraqi army and fighters from Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

“This operation will not come to an end in Basra without the law prevailing,” Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said from the port city.

Mr. al-Maliki was in Basra directing military operations against the Mahdi militia, which has extended its control since the withdrawal of British troops from the city in December.

The British remained in their base on the outskirts of the city and did not intervene.

As Basra shook with the sounds of explosions, rockets and mortars fired from Sadr City in East Baghdad crashed into the U.S. protected Green Zone for the second time in a week.

There were no reports of casualties. But the U.S. Embassy confirmed the death of an American in an Easter Day rocket attack on the Green Zone, the Associated Press reported.

Paul Converse, 56, was a financial analyst for the U.S. government, his parents told the Gazette-Times newspaper in their hometown of Corvallis, Ore.

Mahdi Army gunmen were reported to have clashed with coalition forces in the Sadr City area, but the reports could not be confirmed.

In other developments, curfews were enforced in the mainly Shi’ite cities of Diwaniyah, Kut, Hilla, Nasiriyah and elsewhere to head off violence by militia supporters, amid a call from Sheik al-Sadr for a nationwide general strike.

Supporters of the sheik also waged anti-government demonstration in Baghdad and other cities while closing shops and schools to protest the government crackdown.

Sheik al-Sadr, thought to be in Iran studying for the religious rank of ayatollah, had agreed to a cease-fire with Iraqi and coalition forces in August.

He recently extended the cease-fire but told his followers they could shoot back in self-defense.

Elsewhere in the country, authorities are keeping a watchful eye. One potential area of conflict is the city of Muqdadiyah in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad and its surrounding area.

Most of the Iraqi police in Muqdadiyah are Shi’ite, and many are thought to be either members of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army or have links to the organization.

A statement issued at Sheik al-Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf ordered Mahdi Army commanders to go on maximum alert and prepare “to strike the occupiers” a term used to describe U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies, a militia officer told the Associated Press.

The officer declined to be identified because he wasn’t supposed to release the information.

Followers of Sheik al-Sadr also closed schools and shops and waged anti-government protests in the capital and Najaf.

The sheik’s truce that began in August has been a key factor in declining violence cited by the Bush administration as evidence the U.S. troop surge is working.

However, widespread arrests and detentions have prompted an angry reaction from Sheik al-Sadr’s followers, who are also known as Sadrists.

Thousands of Iraqi troops raided oil-rich Basra this week in an offensive the Baghdad government said was aimed at disarming militias and restoring the rule of law.

Basra’s residents have complained of rising crime since the British withdrawal, as armed Shi’ite groups struggle for control.

The national government, also led by Shi’ites, says the Iraqi military offensive was to restore order and sweep out the “criminals and gangs terrorizing the citizens.”

Sheik al-Sadr’s followers say the offensive, dubbed Charge of the Knights, was politically motivated and aimed at them.

Although U.S. forces and the Iraqi government have attributed Sheik al-Sadr’s truce to a reduction in violence, a recent surge in attacks has been blamed on “renegade elements” from within the Sadrists.

In Baghdad, Mahdi Army fighters said they had taken control of Iraqi army checkpoints in Sadr City.

Residents reportedly stocked up on food and water supplies in the district in anticipation of more fighting to come.

Iraqi critics warn that the fighting, whether led by the Iraqi or U.S. forces, threatens to intensify the insurgency and again raise the level of violence in this war-torn country.

•Sana Abdallah of the Middle East Times contributed from Amman, Jordan, to this report, which is also based in part on wire service reports.

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