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Across Iraq, battles erupt with Mahdi Army
(Sam Dagher, The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2008)
The Mahdi Army's seven-month-long cease-fire appears to have come undone. . . . Rockets fired from the capital's Shiite district of Sadr City slammed into the Green Zone Tuesday, the second time in three days, and firefights erupted around Baghdad pitting government and US forces against the militia allied to the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. . . . At the same time, the oil-export city of Basra became a battleground Tuesday as Iraqi forces, backed by US air power, launched a major crackdown on the Mahdi Army elements. British and US forces were guarding the border with Iran to intercept incoming weapons or fighters, according to a senior security official in Basra. . . . The US blames the latest attacks on rogue Mahdi Army elements tied to Iran, but analysts say the spike in fighting with Shiite militants potentially opens a second front in the war when the American military is still doing battle with the Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda in Iraq. . . . "The cease-fire is over; we have been told to fight the Americans," said one Mahdi Army militiaman, who was reached by telephone in Sadr City. . . . This same man, when interviewed in January, had stated that he was abiding by the cease-fire and that he was keeping busy running his cellular phone store. . . . Sadr City residents say they saw fighting Tuesday between Mahdi militiamen and US and Iraqi forces in several parts of the district. One eyewitness, in the adjacent neighborhood of Baghdad Jadida, who wished to remain anonymous, said he saw a heavy militia presence on the streets, with two fighters planting roadside bombs on a main thoroughfare. . . . Lt. Col. Steve Stover of the Baghdad-based 4th Infantry Division said that in the span of 12 hours Tuesday 16 rockets were fired at the Green Zone and nine rockets and 18 mortar rounds fell on US bases and combat outposts on the east side of Baghdad. A mortar round hit a US patrol in the northern Adhamiyah district, killing one US soldier. A roadside bomb set a US Humvee on fire in Sadr City but all soldiers inside survived. He said clashes broke out between American forces and militiamen when they attacked several government checkpoints in the district and that some of these posts are now manned by both US and Iraqi forces. . . . The Basra-based official said that fighting is now centered in Mahdi Army strongholds in the neighborhoods of Tamimiyah, Hayaniyah, and Five Miles, and that there was also fighting in the neighboring provinces of Nasiriyah and Maysan. . . . A curfew has also been imposed in Nasiriyah and other southern cities, such as Samawa and Kut, the scene of clashes involving the Mahdi Army over the past two weeks. . . . One Basra resident reached by phone said he was holed up at his office at the local branch of the ministry of trade, and described the sound of explosions and gunfire as "terrifying." . . . Two Iraqi Army battalions and five battalions of the National Police's quick-reaction force were dispatched to Basra, where an entire Army division is already stationed. . . . "The lawlessness is going on under religious or political cover along with oil, weapons, and drug smuggling. These outlaws found support from inside government institutions either willingly or by coercion ... turning Basra into a place where no citizen can feel secure for his life and property," said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a statement read on state television, which reported that Mr. Maliki along with the ministers of defense and interior were all in Basra to oversee the operation. . . . The reaction from Sadr's camp was swift. At a press conference in the holy city of Najaf, three of the cleric's top lieutenants condemned the government offensive and accused Maliki, a Shiite, of carrying out a US agenda. They also threatened a nationwide campaign of protests and civil disobedience if US and Iraqi forces continued to fight the Mahdi Army. . . . On Monday evening, pickup trucks filled with chanting Mahdi militiamen, within sight of Iraqi forces, were forcing shopkeepers in many parts of Baghdad's west side to close in protest of US and Iraq Army raids. . . . On Tuesday, all shops in the Mahdi Army stronghold neighborhoods Bayiaa, Iskan, Shuala, and Washash were shuttered. Leaflets saying "No, no to America" were plastered on each storefront. Anti-American banners hung right next to Iraqi government checkpoints.

posted by Lorenzo 3:45 PM

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