American and British troops joined forces with Iraqi government troops battling the Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City on Saturday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offensive, launched Tuesday, passed the fifth day with little sign of reprieve and a great deal riding on its outcome.
The Sunday Times:
Ragtag members of the Mahdi Army, a heavily armed militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric with close links to Iran, vowed to fight to the death to prevent Maliki from imposing government control on the southern port at the heart of Iraq’s potentially hugely profitable oil industry.
“We have received a shipment of Strela antiaircraft rockets,” Abu Sajad boasted to a Sunday Times reporter.
“We intend to use them to prove to the world that the Mahdi Army will not allow Basra to be turned into a second Falluja [the former centre of anticoalition resistance that was crushed by US-led assaults].” President George W Bush praised Maliki and described the clashes as a “defining moment” for the Baghdad government’s attempts to curb Sadr’s influence and assert its own authority. But despite Bush’s approval, American officials are concerned that Maliki’s military gamble may cause serious embarrassment for the coalition forces.
US officials said the Iraqi prime minister had launched the assault on Tuesday without consulting Washington, but yesterday it was the Americans under fire again after claims that eight civilians had been killed in a US bombing raid.