Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki vowed Thursday after last week’s battle in the southern port of Basra to carry out more offensives around Iraq, mentioning as targets neighborhoods in Baghdad associated with Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
Maliki once more drew attention to the divide between himself and Sadr, a former ally whose militia clashed with Iraqi forces for six days last week in Basra. The standoff ended when the cleric told his followers to put down their weapons.
“Basra was a prisoner. Now it’s liberated and its people are in joy. I understand there are other cities that need similar operations. There are also some neighborhoods in Baghdad where their people are still hostages in the hands of these criminals ruling them,” Maliki told reporters. “We will not leave our people and families in Sadr City, Shula, Amiriya and other places.”
The Shula neighborhood and the Sadr City district of Baghdad are bastions of support for Sadr that U.S. and Iraqi forces were unable to penetrate in last week’s fighting.
Amiriya is a Sunni neighborhood, home to a Sunni paramilitary group that aligned with the U.S. military last summer to battle Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Shiite-led government doubts the loyalty of some of the Sunni fighters there.
Maliki flew to Basra last week and supervised the campaign, in which security units raided residential neighborhoods in the name of driving out criminal gangs and restoring law and order. Mahdi Army forces rose up against the police and army incursion, in part because they saw the operation as an attempt to weaken the cleric’s movement before provincial elections expected in October.
The prime minister had harsh words for Sadr’s followers.
“If they want to be partners in the political process, they should comply with the democratic process and its mechanisms for taking their rights. But for one to be above the law, a power besides the government, an army besides an army, they are deceived if they think they can go on like this,” he said.
Maliki acknowledged that the military had made some “miscalculations” in Basra.
The Sadr movement, meanwhile, is planning what it hopes will be a million-strong demonstration against the American presence in Iraq on Wednesday in the holy city of Najaf, to mark the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces.
At a news conference, lawmaker Baha Araji, with the Sadr bloc, warned Maliki to back down.
“We are calling the political blocs, especially the United Iraqi Alliance, to advise the prime minister to return to his sanity and his Iraqi background and not to go with his partisan fanaticism and international agenda,” Araji told reporters. The United Iraqi Alliance is the main Shiite bloc in parliament, of which Maliki’s party is a member.
Meanwhile, a U.S. airman died Thursday in a roadside bombing while on patrol in central Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement. The killing brings the number of U.S. soldiers who have died since the March 2003 invasion to at least 4,013, according to the website icasualties.org.
In Basra, there were contradictory reports about an airstrike Wednesday that left as many as three people dead.
The U.S. military said the attack killed two suspects after Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces came under fire from a house in the Basra suburb of Qibla. Iraqi witnesses said three civilians were killed in the strike.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.