In Basra, Shiites Mount Stiff Resistance

In southern Iraq, CBS producer Phil Ittner tells Robert Siegel the Iraqi forces are in charge of operations — with U.S. and British forces providing logistical and some air support. So far, progress has been slow, Ittner says.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THING CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This week the Iraq military tried to show what it could do on its own without U.S. or British support. It launched an offensive against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra and elsewhere. But there was another sign today that the government's drive is not going well. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki extended a 72-hour deadline for militants to hand over their weapons. Al-Maliki gave members of the Mahdi Army militia an additional 11 days to turn in their guns. And he offered financial compensation to encourage them. But so far, there has been no sign that supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are giving up the fight. Sources in Basra report heavy fighting continues and defiance from the Shia militias who are the target of the combined Iraqi army and police attack

Just ahead, we'll hear about the latest military and political fighting in the capital from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

First to CBS producer, Phil Ittner, one of the few Western journalists in the Basra area, he spoke to us by satellite phone earlier today from the British military air base just outside the city.

Mr. PHIL ITTNER (Producer, CBS): Well, according to British authorities who are working hand-in-hand with Iraqis, at least, in a logistical and in a head of command-and-control capacity, we know that the Iraqi security forces went into Basra. They're now in their fourth day inside the city. They basically moved into parts of the city, established bases and have now been working with what the British refer to as a cordon-and-strike kind of operation, where they'll go into a neighborhood or Basraville(ph), seal it off and then they'll strike into the strategic strong points that militia members have established. The British say that it is progressing that they do see some success but that it is slow-going and it will take, in the words of one British officer here, quite some time before Basra is cleared.

SIEGEL: What are you seeing right now?

Mr. ITTNER: Well, it's interesting because on the base here, it's a strange mix between a heightened sense of activity and operations as normal. We have a lot more aerial activity but British foot soldiers and armored units are going about their business as normal. You don't see them preparing their gear for combat operations. It's very clear that the Brits are not looking to go in, in any kind of ground capacity into the city of Basra.

SIEGEL: What role, if any, are Americans playing in this fighting in Basra?

Mr. ITTNER: Well, we know that there are American liaison officers on the ground in Basra. It's believed, however, that they are at the Basra Palace, the location of the Iraqi command. Predominantly, at least, whether or not there are American liaison officers in combat capacity enters first amongst Iraqi patrols and squads that are going through the town, that's hard to determine. Certainly, they're in with the commanders and in with the prime minister who has come to Basra to oversee things, whether or not they're taking a more aggressive combat role, it's hard to ascertain most coalition authorities here. Certainly, the British are saying, this is an Iraqi military operation. They are really running the combat in Basra.

The Brits say, though, that both British and American forces are providing air assets, reconnaissance, some surveillance, that sort of things. In a couple of isolated incidents, some bombing runs. For the most part on the ground, it's the Iraqis themselves.

SIEGEL: The people you're talking to there at the British base, have they described to you, why it was that Prime Minister al-Maliki chose this time to take this action in Basra?

Mr. ITTNER: Yeah. There's a huge question right now is: Why now? We had heard that there would be a military effort in Basra for quite some time. We've known that for at least a couple of weeks if not more. But it has been expected that it would be a slow build up of Iraqi troops, that there would be in conjunction with that build up an effort to kind of speak to some of the more moderate elements of the Mahdi Army and Sadrists to try to get them on board to bring them into the political fold.

Why that slow build up and progressive, diplomatic effort was abandoned, it is unknown at this point. But, apparently, this was a decision made from within the Iraqi prime minister's office and really not mad in consultation with coalition forces.

SIEGEL: Phil Ittner of CBS News in Basra, Iraq.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ITTNER: My pleasure.

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