Iraqi Forces Launch Offensive Against Sadr Militias

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Heavy fighting broke out Tuesday in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Iraqi security forces launched a major offensive against Shiite militias loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Spokesmen for al-Sadr say they are being targeted by a rival Shiite group, and they are threatening to retaliate.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Heavy fighting broke out in southern Iraq today. It's in the oil-rich city of Basra, where government security forces took on the Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

There were similar clashes in Baghdad today and yesterday. To find out more we turn to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who joins us now on the line from Baghdad. And, Lourdes, tell us about these clashes today.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Basra offenses was kicked off by a visit from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday where he basically announced that there will be a crackdown on militias there. As a senior diplomat told me, I feel optimistic about the future of Iraq and then I think of Basra. Basra is a mess. There is very little coalition presence there, it's been a place where militias, many different militias, have had a free run. They've infiltrated the security services, they've made it into a religiously conservative mini-state.

And as you may remember a CBS reporter is currently kidnapped there. He was snatched from his hotel room. We spoke to our local reporter in Basra and several residents, and the situation is extremely tense. Iraqi Army troops, which have been sent from Baghdad to Basra, so as not to use the local forces, which may be infiltrated, they're going house-to-house. The streets are deserted. It's been characterized as some of the fiercest fighting that has gone on in that city since the invasion.

British forces are not involved, though the U.S., we understand, is providing air support for now.

MONTAGNE: Now, militias have been known to be in control of Basra for several years now, some of them criminal. But the one that is being targeted, it appears today, is that of more or less somebody who's political, the radical Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's exactly right. And that's something that is extremely worrying. The Mahdi army has been observing a ceasefire but it seems to be fraying. There's been fighting in southern Baghdad between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces. A key Sadr commander over the weekend gave the government an ultimatum.

The Sadr forces, the Mahdi Army, feels that the security forces and a rival militia and the U.S. have been taking advantage of the ceasefire and targeting the Sadr militia unfairly. There is simmering discontent among many Mahdi members that I've spoken to. They want the ceasefire to be over.

So this seems to be in that context an extremely worrying trend.

MONTAGNE: What then does this mean for the wider security situation in a country - 'cause part of the lower level of violence has been attributed to a ceasefire instituted by Sadr. What is the significance of what's happening now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that's right. The surge is credited with working for three main reasons: the ceasefire, more troops on the ground - meaning, of course, more security - and the fact that U.S. forces stood up the Sunni awakening groups and putting the Sunni-led insurgency at bay. Basically they gutted it by doing that.

So the surge is now being reversed. All those extra troops are leaving. The Sadr ceasefire may be fraying. If that happens, the Sunni groups, which have been paid and trained and in some cases armed by the U.S., they're still around. They could get involved if things break down. That's a worst-case scenario but that is what's playing in everyone's heads.

So it could all be kicked off if Sadr fighters decide to really take up arms and start battling in the way that they used to. The situation in Iraq is still very fragile and very precarious. And the U.S. military leaders will tell you that at every turn. So what happens with the Sadr movement in Basra and Baghdad is very important because it could signal serious problems.

MONTAGNE: Because for one thing it's Iraqi versus Iraqi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's exactly right. And there is a wide political context to this. The elections are coming up in October. These are provincial elections and there is a very large power struggle going on in the south right now between members of Sadr's political block and other groups. And as often happens in Iraq, these political battles become actual battles fought with guns. And so this could signal real trouble to come.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro speaking from Baghdad. Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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