The fighting in Basra, and rocket attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone by members of the Mahdi Army militia, have led some analysts to believe the unilateral ceasefire called by the militia's powerful leader Moqtada al-Sadr is falling apart. Among those analysts is Ilan Goldenberg, policy director of the National Security Network, a frequent critic of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy.Of course one problem is that many and perhaps a majority of Iraqis in the south and portions of Baghdad and other cities see the al-Malaki government as "the extremists and the criminals." The net result is the country is once again descending into chaos.
"It looks like it's breaking down. If it is in fact breaking down, and not just a temporary blip, then you could have a major increase in violence," he said.
That's not how the Pentagon sees it, according to Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. "I do not think at this stage, at this stage, which is mere days into this operation, anyone is prepared to stand here and tell you that they feel as though the gains we've made over the past several months are in jeopardy," he said.
In fact, Morrell says the Baghdad government's decision to take on extremist elements of the Mahdi Army militia is a good sign. "It's very noteworthy that the prime minister, that the government for that matter, is ready, willing and now able to take the fight to the extremists and to the criminals down there. They were not of this capacity some months ago. And what's more than that, it's a Shia'-dominated government going after Shia' extremists down there, and that's significant," he said.
Iraq implodes as Shia fights Shia
A new civil war is threatening to explode in Iraq as American-backed Iraqi government forces fight Shia militiamen for control of Basra and parts of Baghdad.Not even invasion and surge supporter Anthony Cordesman is buying the spin.
Heavy fighting engulfed Iraq's two largest cities and spread to other towns yesterday as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, gave fighters of the Mehdi Army, led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 72 hours to surrender their weapons.
The gun battles between soldiers and militiamen, who are all Shia Muslims, show that Iraq's majority Shia community – which replaced Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime – is splitting apart for the first time.
Mr Sadr's followers believe the government is trying to eliminate them before elections in southern Iraq later this year, which they are expected to win.
Mortars and rockets launched from Mehdi Army-controlled districts of Baghdad struck the Green Zone, the seat of American power in Iraq, for the third day yesterday, seriously wounding three Americans. Two rockets hit the parking lot of the Iraqi cabinet. The mixed area of al-Mansur in west Baghdad, where shops had begun to reopen in recent months, was deserted yesterday as Mehdi Army fighters were rumoured among local people to be moving in from the nearby Shia stronghold of Washash. "We expect an attack by the Shia in spite of the Americans being spread over Sunni districts to defend them," said a Sunni resident.
Forty people have been killed and at least 200 injured in Basra in the last two days of violence. In the town of Hilla, south of Baghdad, 11 people were killed and 18 injured yesterday by a US air strike called in support of Iraqi forces following street battles with Shia militia members in the city's Thawra neighbourhood. In Baghdad, 14 have been killed and 140 wounded.
The supporters of Mr Sadr, who form the largest political movement in Iraq, blame the Americans for giving the go-ahead for Mr Maliki's offensive against them and supporting it with helicopters and bomber aircraft. US troops have sealed off Sadr City, the close-packed slum in the capital with a population that is the main bastion of the Sadrists, while the Mehdi Army has taken over its streets, establishing checkpoints, each manned by about 20 heavily armed men. It is unlikely that the militiamen in Basra will surrender as demanded by the government. Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to Mr Maliki, said those who kept their weapons would be arrested. "Any gunman who does not do that within three days will be an outlaw."
Streets were empty in Basra and Baghdad as people stayed at home to avoid the fighting. The Mehdi Army is enforcing a strike in Baghdad with mosques calling for the closure of shops, businesses and schools.
In the Shia city of Kut, on the Tigris south of Baghdad, local residents say that black-clad Mehdi Army militiamen have taken over five districts and expelled the police.
Much of the current coverage of the fighting in the south assumes that Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr militia are the "spoilers," or bad guys, and that the government forces are the legitimate side and bringing order. This can be a dangerous oversimplification. There is no question that many elements of the JAM have been guilty of sectarian cleansing, and that the Sadr movement in general is hostile to the US and is seeking to enhance Muqtada al-Sadr's political power. There is also no doubt that the extreme rogue elements in the JAM have continued acts of violence in spite of the ceasefire, and that some have ties to Iran. No one should romanticize the Sadr movement, understate the risks it presents, or ignore the actions of the extreme elements of the JAM.
But no one should romanticize Maliki, Al Dawa, or the Hakim faction/ISCI. The current fighting is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shi'ite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule.
Is the end result going to be good or bad? It is very difficult to tell. If the JAM and Sadr turn on the US, or if the current ISCI/Dawa power grab fails, then Shi'ite on Shi'ite violence could become far more severe. It is also far from clear that if the two religious-exile parties win, this is going to serve the cause of political accommodation or legitimate local and provincial government. It seems far more likely that even the best case outcome is going be one that favors Iraqracy over democracy.