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Crackdown on Iraq militias gets mixed review

Times Staff Writer

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki described his crackdown on Shiite militias in southern Iraq as a success Tuesday, even as Britain said the situation had turned too volatile to pull more of its troops from the region as planned.

Representatives of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, who on Sunday ordered his Mahdi Army militia to stop fighting, accused Iraqi forces of violating the cease-fire with new raids Tuesday in Basra and Hillah and warned that such actions could ignite further bloodshed. Iraqi security forces denied the allegations, the latest indication of the ongoing animosity between Sadr and the Iraqi government and the tenuous state of the truce.

Basra and Baghdad remained relatively quiet, with only sporadic skirmishes reported. Among them was a U.S. air assault on the anti-American cleric’s Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City, which the U.S. military said killed six militia fighters. An American military spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Steven Stover, denied allegations by some residents of the neighborhood that civilians were among those killed.

The situation in Basra, 275 miles to the southeast, remained tense. Residents said militia members remained on the streets in some neighborhoods and that Iraqi security forces deployed in the city were jumpy and quick to blast bullets into the air when vehicles came near.

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“The streets are less busy today than yesterday, because people fear that the security situation may blow up again,” said Yahya Ali, who lives in the Ashar neighborhood. “There are rumors that the government and Mahdi Army are exchanging threats.”

Ali said relatives living in Basra’s Hayaniya district had told him by phone that militia members remained there. “This definitely horrifies the civilians,” he said.

New Iraqi security force raids took place in Zubayr, about 12 miles southwest of Basra. Witnesses said they awoke to the sound of gunfire as security forces raided homes suspected of harboring militiamen.

Diah Ali, a Basra police officer, said soldiers fired warning shots as they conducted their raids. “This made civilians more anxious. People were careful to cooperate, trying to stay away and fearing they would be harmed,” he said.

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There was no immediate word from U.S. or British military officials on whether their forces had been active in Basra on Tuesday. Both countries provided air and ground support to Iraqi security forces after violence erupted following the March 24 announcement by Maliki of the launch of an offensive in the city. The clashes left more than 600 people dead, mostly in Basra and Baghdad, Iraqi officials have said.

Maliki said the offensive was aimed at criminal elements, not Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which is a rival to the militia of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a key component of Iraq’s coalition government. The two Shiite militias are vying for power in southern Iraq, and Basra, with its port and oil, is the biggest prize there when local elections take place this fall.

Sadr has said Maliki is trying to crush him before the balloting to ensure that the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council controls Basra.

Britain’s defense secretary, Des Browne, told the House of Commons on Tuesday that things were too unstable to proceed with plans to slash British troop levels in Basra to 2,500 by June, as planned. About 4,000 troops remain on a base on Basra’s outskirts, and that number will stay constant, he said.

“It is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding,” Browne said.

The Iraqi prime minister had a different take. In a statement released Tuesday, Maliki said the “success of the rule of law plan” in Basra would allow him to launch several reconstruction projects to help the city.

These, he said, include deployment of government officials to accelerate resumption of services such as water and electricity; construction of housing for the poor; and the recruitment of 10,000 residents for local security forces. Maliki also said he planned to convert government palaces into tourist sites “for the benefit and interest of Basra.”

In an apparent effort to curry favor with Baghdad’s 2.5-million-resident Sadr City district, Maliki deployed his special envoy for essential services, Ahmad Chalabi, to tour the vast slum. Municipal leaders and Sadr officials said Chalabi spent about three hours in Sadr City and discussed ways of improving services and medical care, and removing trash and rubble from the streets.

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Sadr’s loyalists remained on the defensive. “The Sadr movement is being subjected to an aggressive campaign of raids, detentions and destruction . . . that contradicts what has been agreed upon,” said Harith Athari, chief of the cleric’s office in Basra.

Sadr parliament member Ahmed Massoudi accused Iraqi security forces of disrupting a Mahdi Army member’s funeral ceremony in a Sadr stronghold near Hillah, a provincial capital 60 miles south of Baghdad. In central Hillah, Massoudi said, soldiers from the Iraqi military’s elite Scorpion Brigades raided homes of known Sadr supporters. If they could not find men, they detained women to pressure males to surrender, Massoudi said.

Brig. Gen. Ali Dulaimi of the Scorpion Brigades, which are based in Hillah, denied the allegations.

British lawmakers have long pushed for a drawdown of their troops in Basra, and Britain’s involvement in the latest violence is likely to increase pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to comply. In addition to providing aerial surveillance and flying “fast jet missions” over Basra as “shows of force,” Britain has deployed tanks, armored vehicles and artillery in the city during the fighting.

Several British lawmakers said Tuesday that the extent of the military support raised concerns about Britain being dragged further into the conflict when it is also committing forces to fight Islamic extremists in Afghanistan.

“Unless we are very, very careful, we are going to get drawn into a quagmire of our own making,” said David Hamilton, a Labor Party legislator.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Kim Murphy in London and special correspondents in Basra and Baghdad contributed to this report.


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