Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Friday extended a deadline for fighters to disarm after nobody responded, and U.S. forces were pulled deeper into the showdown between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen.
The United States military said a Navy jet had strafed a mortar-launching position in the southern city of Basra with 20-millimeter cannon fire Thursday night, killing three “criminal militia members.” It was the first time U.S. forces were directly involved in the combat in Basra, where Maliki launched an offensive against militias Tuesday.
The U.S. involvement, along with the 10-day extension of the surrender deadline, indicates that the operation was meeting fiercer resistance than expected, even as Maliki’s government insisted things were going well.
Loyalists of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, who say his supporters are being unjustly targeted in the offensive, said the situation had exposed Maliki’s weaknesses as a leader.
“That’s an indication of his defeat, to call outside forces to strike his own people,” said Falah Shanshai, one of 30 lawmakers with Sadr’s bloc in parliament. “Force won’t do any good. The people are suffering from lack of services, and Maliki brings in the planes.”
On a warm and dusty day, Baghdad was under a virtual lockdown, its normally chaotic streets quiet except for occasional blasts from rockets and mortar shells thundering into the ground.
“We are scared, sitting home and not knowing what will happen in any minute,” said Mithaq Majeed, who lives in an area under the sway of Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. Overnight, he said, militiamen used bulldozers to build sand hills to seal off the neighborhood.
The developments do not bode well for Maliki or U.S. military leaders, who had hoped the offensive would show that Iraqi security forces can handle major operations without outside help. They also come at a delicate time for the U.S., which plans to complete the pullout of 28,500 additional troops deployed last year by the end of July.
The British military had been in charge of security in Basra until December, when it handed over the job to Iraqis. Britain has about 4,500 troops in a base on the outskirts of Basra and plans to reduce that number to 2,500 by June. If the situation spins out of control, the U.S. could face pressure to send some of its own forces south. That would thin their presence elsewhere and could affect U.S. withdrawal plans.
President Bush, in a news conference at the White House, said of the Iraqi forces, “Of course we’ll provide them help if they need it and ask for it, but they are in the lead.” He made no mention of the U.S. airstrikes the night before.
In Baghdad, U.S. forces clashed with suspected militiamen in the Sadr City neighborhood, a Mahdi Army stronghold, and skirmishes were reported elsewhere. A U.S. military statement said American soldiers had killed 13 “terrorists” Friday in operations across the capital, most of them in mainly Shiite east Baghdad.
Several mortar shells or rockets believed to have been fired from Shiite areas landed in the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government offices. One hit the office of Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi. He was not there, but at least one of his guards was killed, police said. Initial police reports had said three guards died.
Embassy employees were under orders to remain inside fortified structures and to wear body armor and helmets if they had to go outside.
Baghdad and most southern cities were under curfews, which appeared to curtail the violence.
Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman in Basra, said there had been “isolated skirmishes” there.
Police and hospital officials in Basra have put the death toll there since Tuesday at anywhere from 60 to 80, with hundreds wounded. Nationwide, the number of dead, including many civilians, is more than 150, according to reports from different cities.
Maliki deployed forces to Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, on Tuesday, saying he wanted to quell violence by “criminal gangs” he said were engaging in militia activity. But Sadr has said the crackdown was intended to sideline his movement to ensure that it cannot defeat pro-Maliki forces in provincial elections planned for the fall.
The U.S. military, which sorely needs Sadr to maintain a cease-fire he called in August, has backed Maliki’s assertion that Sadr’s forces are not being targeted.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry, said that “no one had handed over his weapons” after Maliki issued his ultimatum Wednesday. But he said the ministry, which oversees police forces, had received calls from people asking how to turn in arms without facing arrest or other repercussions.
Khalaf said a formal process for surrendering weapons had been established that allows fighters to register at mosques instead of police stations. In a telephone interview, he said anyone handing over weapons would receive a reward, but he refused to say how much.
But supporters of Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia said they doubted this would help end the violence, and they repeated their demands for Maliki to negotiate with Sadr’s people.
Mahdi Army fighters said they would not disarm because they were not involved in unlawful activities. They blamed the violence in Basra on splinter groups who have refused to abide by the cease-fire called by Sadr.
“The gangs that are claiming they are Mahdi Army won’t [disarm], because they are not ready to do so, and they are supported from the outside -- especially Iran,” said a Mahdi Army member in Sadr City who identified himself as Abu Ali.
He said Maliki’s offer might work if the reward was large enough. “When a bad person hears about a sum of say $10,000 or $15,000, he will have trouble” turning it down, Abu Ali said.
Shanshai, the Sadr bloc lawmaker, said he did not believe the monetary offer would change things.
“There is no trust between the people and the government, so the people won’t turn in [their weapons]. They want to defend themselves against this aggressive assault.”
For ordinary Iraqis, the situation was grim, considering that it followed four months of relative quiet across the country. Prices of food quadrupled in the few markets that were open, and people stayed indoors.
A car dealer in Nasiriya, a provincial capital about 100 miles northwest of Basra, where clashes also have occurred, said he was keeping track of developments by phoning people in different neighborhoods.
The man, who did not want to give his name, said Iraqi forces were positioned on rooftops in the city center and in alleys. Militia forces were clashing with Iraqi army units on the northern edge of the city, he said, preventing people from leaving town.
He blamed “everyone” for the violence. “The stench is all over the place,” he said.
Iraqi television showed images of a battered-looking Basra, with only military vehicles and masked militiamen toting machine guns on the streets. A police official estimated Thursday that 70% of the city was in militia hands.
One scene shown repeatedly Friday was of gunmen driving a military Humvee, apparently seized from Iraqi forces, painted white with “Mahdi Army” written on its side.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Saad Khalaf, Usama Redha, Saif Hameed and Mohammed Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondents in Basra, Baghdad and Hillah contributed to this report.