Maliki Vows Increased Offensives

Published: Mon 7 Apr 2008 12:32 AM
Maliki Vows Increased Offensives
By Christopher Kuttruff
t r u t h o u t | Report
Despite the recent spike in violence in Iraq prompted by government military offensives, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed on Thursday to expand operations in several regions across the country. Facing increased external and internal resistance, however, Maliki seemed to offer a more measured response on Friday. The change in tone came after significant casualties, as well as defections from Iraqi police and military forces during last week's fighting in Basra.
Maliki said during the Thursday news conference: "I expect more crackdowns like [Basra]. We do not negotiate with outlaws." The prime minister was referring to the government's attempt to gain more control over opposition strongholds such as Basra, Kut, Hilla and Sadr City. "The coming days will witness more assaults as people are still in the control of gangs," Maliki said, referring specifically to Shuala, Sadr City and Ameriyya in Baghdad. Like Basra, Shuala and Sadr City are key areas of opposition to the Maliki government and maintain strong loyalties to Moqtada al-Sadr.
On Friday, bruised by unexpected resistance, Maliki used more conciliatory language: "To give space and an opportunity for those who are remorseful and are willing to give up their weapons, all pursuits and raids in all areas will be stopped. Those who take up arms will face the law."
Maliki's concession came in response to especially tumultuous bouts with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militias, and to a growing consensus that Maliki is fighting a losing battle against Sadr, who retains control of much of Basra after last week's clashes.
Fighting swept across Basra and other regions in late March, leaving hundreds dead amidst al-Maliki's mission to "cleanse" the regions of militia activity. Total casualties in Basra and regions near the capital are estimated at more than 460 dead and over 1,100 wounded.
Motivations Behind Incursion
Administration critics have argued that the prime minister is merely trying to solidify power by quashing potentially threatening political opponents. Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute, explained last Tuesday to Truthout that "For Maliki, losing Basra would be like allowing New York to be taken over by the five mafia families.... The fighting is all about petroleum security for the government."
Maliki recently declared the operation in Basra a "success," but this assertion has been fiercely disputed. Many note that a sense of stability was only restored after Moqtada al-Sadr intervened and told his loyalists to suspend fighting.
Experts view Maliki's offensive as reckless, and say it could jeopardize the decline in violence prompted, in part, by al-Sadr's call for a cease-fire, which was originally declared in August.
Maliki's statements on Thursday, however, came as little surprise to those closely following developments. On March 25, Dahr Jamail, who has reported extensively as an unembedded journalist from Iraq, predicted to Truthout: "This is just the beginning - we should expect this to be the kick-off of hostilities.... There's been a long series of Maliki provocations of the Sadr movement. It's been an ongoing battle for months and months, if not years." Further straining Maliki's endeavor to control the oil-rich port city of Basra, many police and military forces defected, refusing to fight Sadr's loyalists.
Patrick Cockburn wrote for The Independent UK that many Iraqi police forces refused to fight or switched sides during the conflict in Basra. One officer said "Some of the men told me that they did not want to go back to the fight until they have better support and more protection."
According to The New York Times, more than 1,000 soldiers and policeman refused to fight or abandoned their posts during the fighting last week in Basra. "Iraqi military officials said the group included dozens of officers, including at least two senior field commanders in the battle."
In response to the failure of Iraqi forces to "secure" Basra, the US military buttressed Maliki's effort by way of air support. US airstrikes, however, have become notorious for their frequent imprecision - resulting in the deaths of Iraqi civilians. For example, on Thursday, The Associated Press reported that Iraqi police found six dead civilians among the wreckage created by a "strategic aerial attack."
End Result?
Some Iraqis fear that Nouri al-Maliki's actions will cement opposition and create more tension across the country. Cockburn noted in his March 29 article in The Independent UK that an Iraqi politician who wished to remain anonymous warned that "It is possible Muqtada and the Mehdi Army will emerge from this crisis stronger than they were before."
While Sadr has ordered his loyalists off the streets in order to promote "Iraqi unity," he has also encouraged his supporters to join him on April 9 in a march to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to protest the coalition's military presence in Iraq.
Maya Schenwar contributed research and editorial support for this piece.
Christopher Kuttruff is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.

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