Violence may augur ‘a hot summer in Iraq’

Times Staff Writers

When Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker brief Congress this week, they will be hard-pressed to depict Iraq as moving toward stability in the wake of recent violence that sent deaths soaring to their highest level in seven months.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s move against Shiite Muslim militias has revealed the gravity of the country’s Shiite rivalries, just as U.S. forces are decreasing their presence.

The intense combat in southern Iraq that pitted Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army against Iraqi and American forces has largely wound down for the time being, but the enmity that fueled it remains. Fighting between the two sides flared Sunday in Baghdad, leaving as many as 22 dead.


The military campaign in the southern port of Basra, which the government says targeted all armed groups, unraveled a seven-month freeze on armed operations observed by the Mahdi Army that had been considered pivotal to Iraq’s recent reduction in violence.

“We are now locked in a battle,” said a high-ranking Iraqi government official, who predicted more confrontations in the coming months. “I think this will be a hot summer in Iraq.”

Crocker, in a meeting with foreign journalists Thursday, praised Maliki for taking on militias but said the prime minister had started a fight that could not be dropped.

“Having taken a commendable position that they are not going to accept this kind of presence, they will then have to make good on it, whether it’s through removal of heavy weapons or through the other necessary steps to actually take full control of every area where militias are embedded,” Crocker said. “And I can’t predict when and how that will go. It will be crucial to the future of the country that it proceed.”

That’s not the only problem.

There also are signs that the group Al Qaeda in Iraq is working to regenerate itself. Car bombs and suicide bombings, the hallmarks of the Sunni Arab extremist group, have crept up since December, according to U.S. military figures.

Overall, last month’s 1,079 war-related deaths were the highest since August, when 1,860 people were killed. The sharp increase was due in large part to the Basra offensive and the ensuing battles, which Iraqi officials say killed more than 600 people.


A U.S. military official said that as long as weapons, fighters and other aid to both Sunni and Shiite fighters continue to enter Iraq from Iran, Syria and elsewhere, there is little chance of the country’s violence dropping to a level that one could call normal.

“We’re a long way from that,” he said.

Similar assessments were heard last week in Washington, where Iraq experts suggested in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that security gains had gone as far as they could, given Iraq’s political and sectarian polarization.

Terrence Kelly, who worked on Iraqi militia issues for the U.S. government in 2004, said that as long as Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders remained determined not to cede power to one another, there was no chance of violence declining further.

“Five years of data indicate that political violence will remain a characteristic of Iraqi society for some time to come,” said Kelly, a researcher at the Rand Corp. He cautioned that “true reconciliation is likely at least a generation away.”

None of this bodes well for U.S. hopes of decreasing its troop strength in Iraq after July, when the last of five extra brigades sent here in 2007 is due to go home.

Petraeus and Crocker, who are to go before Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday, have the task of presenting what is at best a mixed bag of statistics. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is expected to argue for a pause in further troop withdrawals to evaluate the impact of reductions on the country’s security.

The number of attacks and deaths decreased steadily from September, the last time the two officials addressed Congress, through the end of 2007. But in January, attacks by suspected Sunni Muslim extremists wearing explosives vests increased sharply. Car bomb attacks went up slightly as well. February saw similar increases in violence linked to Sunni extremists.

The high-ranking Iraqi government official predicted that Sunni attacks would rise largely because of the U.S. presidential campaign.

“We must anticipate they will do everything in their power to mount spectacular attacks and increase the level of violence to tell Americans Iraq is not worth it,” he said.

The Iraqi government’s Basra offensive last month and the battles with Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia that quickly spread across southern Iraq and into Baghdad show how rivalries between Shiite factions jeopardize the country’s stability. The fighting also revealed the wobbly state of the Iraqi security forces and, some critics say, Maliki’s propensity for barging into a volatile situation without proper planning.

U.S. officials have said they were taken by surprise at how aggressively Maliki moved troops into Basra.

“The sense we had was that over time, they were going to go after militias. That was good,” said the U.S. official. But he said Maliki moved troops in before either Iraqi or U.S. military leaders could draw up a plan to deal with logistics and other needs.

“All that stuff behind the scenes had not been done,” he said.

Crocker said things escalated far more quickly than expected.

“I had the understanding that this was going to be an effort to kind of . . . put the squeeze on, develop a good -- a full picture -- of conditions, and then act accordingly,” he said. “I was not expecting, frankly, you know, a major battle from Day One.”

The Iraqi and U.S. governments have portrayed Maliki’s offensive as a sign of his determination to pursue militias. They have also noted that Maliki, a Shiite, made good on pledges to crack down on other Shiites, in this case rogue elements of Sadr’s militia and other so-called thugs and criminals.

Sami Askari, a lawmaker and member of Maliki’s inner circle, said the government’s quest to crush militias was far from finished.

“I think the government has entered a new phase in dealing with militias,” he said. “I don’t think we will face in the near future a wider confrontation, but at the same time, I don’t think our forces will stop arresting those people or searching for those weapons.”

Askari called the Sadr loyalists “a source of friction” and condemned the movement’s militia in Basra for trying to create “a state within a state.” He warned that the militia members might do the same in Baghdad if they had the chance and had probably already carried out some abuses in neighborhoods under their control.

In a confrontational speech Thursday, Maliki threatened to go after Shiite militiamen in such areas unless they disarm. After backing off slightly the next day, the prime minister and other leaders called late Saturday on all militias to disarm before October’s provincial elections. The statement was directed at Sadr.

“This is because of what has happened in Iraq since the Basra operation,” Askari said.

Sadr loyalists say they were the victors because they were able to hold off Iraqi security forces, who had the backing of U.S. and British troops, and determine when the fighting should stop. A cease-fire called by Sadr brought an abrupt end to the fighting March 31, proving how easily the cleric could turn the violence back on if Maliki pushed the wrong buttons.

By Sunday, clashes had erupted in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold, while Basra had witnessed intermittent airstrikes. “People are resentful. . . . The government shouldn’t deal with the crisis in such a way,” Sadr City resident Ibrahim Abdul Jabbar said.

In Basra, people offered a bleak prognosis. Mohammed Jummah, 34, a civilian who survived the fighting, warned: “What happened now is not a final agreement or reconciliation. It’s just a truce.”