By JAMES GLANZ and GRAHAM BOWLEY
The New York Times, March 28, 2008
BAGHDAD — Thousands of supporters of the powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia took to the streets of Baghdad on Thursday to protest the Iraqi Army’s assault on the southern port city of Basra, as intense fighting continued there for a third day.
In Basra, there seemed to be no breakthrough in the fighting by either side; as much as half of the city remained under militia control, hospitals in some parts of the city were reported full, and the violence was continuing to spread. There were clashes reported all over the city and in locations 12 miles south of Basra.
The Iraqi Army’s offensive in Basra is an important political test for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and for American strategy in Iraq. President Bush sought to portray the fighting in a positive light on Thursday, declaring the offensive by Mr. Maliki’s government a “bold decision.”
But if the army’s assault in Basra leads the Mahdi Army to break completely with its current cease-fire, which has helped to tamp down attacks in Iraq during the past year, there is a risk of escalating violence and of replaying 2004, when the militia fought intense battles with American forces that destabilized the entire country.
As a possible sign of the rising instability in the region, saboteurs blew up one of Iraq’s two main oil export pipelines from Basra, Reuters reported. The oil pipelines were regular targets for insurgents earlier in the Iraqi conflict, but Thursday’s sabotage was the first time for several years the southern oil supply route has been disrupted, and oil prices rose briefly after the attack.
In a speech at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Mr. Bush said that Mr. Maliki’s decision to wage the offensive “shows his leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an evenhanded manner.”
“Iraqi forces planned this operation, and they deployed substantial extra forces for it,” the president said. He said the offensive “builds on the security gains of the surge and demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them.”
Mr. Bush predicted that the operation would last for some time.
In Baghdad, close-packed crowds numbering perhaps 5,000 demonstrated in Sadr City, the epicenter of the capital’s protests, taking over the main street, chanting, dancing and holding up banners, and declaring their readiness to continue to oppose the Iraqi Army’s attempt to wrest control of Basra from Mr. Sadr’s Shiite militiamen, a major onslaught that began on Tuesday.
“It is unfair,” said one of the protesters, Jabbar Azem Hassan, 65. “They are killing our sons and they are harming innocent people,” he said. “We need to reform the national government from all parts of the Iraqi populace.”
Some of the protesters criticized the United States — Mr. Sadr considers the Americans occupiers — but most of their criticism was aimed at Mr. Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Mr. Hakim leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has emerged as a rival political force to Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army and also commands a rival militia, the Badr Organization.
The protesters criticized what they said was a strengthening alliance between Mr. Hakim’s political group and the Iraqi government to squeeze Mr. Sadr from power. Mr. Maliki’s government depends on support from Mr. Hakim’s party, reducing the need for alliances with the Mahdi Army and making it easier for Mr. Maliki to move against it.
“Moktada is above our heads and Maliki is under our shoes,” said one slogan.
There were other, smaller demonstrations in Baghdad. Many people had come from all over Iraq to take part, according to witnesses.
Some of the signs and chants called for Mr. Hakim’s execution, a measure of the animosity that has grown up between the Mahdi Army and Mr. Hakim’s loyalists.
American officials have presented the Iraqi Army’s attempts to secure Basra as an example of its ability to carry out a major operation on its own but a failure there would be a serious embarrassment for the Iraqi government and for the army, as well as for American forces eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively on their own.
During a briefing in Baghdad on Wednesday, a British military official said that of the nearly 30,000 Iraqi security forces involved in the assault, almost 16,000 were Basra police forces, which have long been suspected of being infiltrated by the same militias the assault was intended to root out.
In a sign of the significance of the political test for Mr. Maliki, he traveled to Basra to oversee the beginning of the assault and in a speech on Thursday broadcast on Iraqi television said the assault would continue “to the end.”
"We entered this battle with determination and we will continue to the end,” he said, Reuters reported. “No retreat. No talks. No negotiations."
Any break by the Mahdi Army with its current cease-fire would make it more difficult to begin sending home large numbers of American troops.
Mahdi Army commanders said Thursday that the cease-fire was still intact but said that if the Basra assault continues and their grievances are not addressed then they would follow the protests with a period of civil disobedience and after that they would take “appropriate next steps,” without saying what those steps would be.
Mr. Maliki issued an ultimatum on Wednesday for Shiite militias in Basra to put down their weapons within 72 hours. Yet battles have continued, killing at least 40 people by Wednesday and wounding 200 others, hospital officials said.
Though American and Iraqi officials have insisted that the operation was not singling out a particular group, fighting has appeared to focus on Mahdi-controlled neighborhoods. In fact, some witnesses said Wednesday, neighborhoods controlled by rival political groups seemed to be giving government forces safe passage, as if they were helping them to strike at the Mahdi Army.
Even so, the Mahdi fighters seemed to hold their ground on Wednesday. Witnesses said that from the worn, closely packed brick buildings of one Mahdi stronghold, the Hayaniya neighborhood, Mahdi fighters fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons and sniper rifles at seemingly helpless Iraqi Army units pinned on a main road outside, their armored vehicles unable to enter the narrow streets.
The assault has also sparked continuing violence by outraged Mahdi commanders in other major cities, including Baghdad, where the sprawling urban slum of Sadr City forms the militia’s power center in Iraq.
Most casualties in Basra have been civilians caught in the cross-fire, hospital officials have said. The heaviest fighting outside Basra on Wednesday appeared to be taking place in Kut, where officials said 10 people had been killed by Wednesday and 31 wounded, mostly by mortar shells.
There were also deadly clashes in Diwaniya, Hilla and Amara, and the booms of rocket fire rattled Baghdad all day Wednesday and continued Thursday, with reports of a rocket strike on the Green Zone. The American military said in a statement on Wednesday that 16 rockets had been fired into the fortified Green Zone alone, wounding one American soldier, two American civilians and an Iraqi Army soldier.
But it was in Basra where the fighting has been by far the most intense, and terrified residents have huddled inside their houses because of a curfew and because anyone on the streets risked being killed.
A Basra newspaper editor who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals said most residents despised the Mahdi Army and welcomed the assault. But he said it was obvious that the central government had not consulted with local commanders in planning the assault, citing the inability of the armored vehicles to fit through city streets. But support for the assault already seems to be eroding in several neighborhoods, as militiamen retained control of their strongholds and residents were confined in their homes. “The Mahdi Army is still controlling most of these places,” the editor said. “The result is negative.”
James Glanz reported from Baghdad and Graham Bowley from New York. Employees of The New York Times contributed from Basra. David Stout contributed reporting from Washington.