5 US Troops Die in Iraq; Heavy Fighting in Sadr City Kills 22, Wounds 78; Blockade Threatens Humanitarian Crisis

The US military attacked the Mahdi Army militia in Sadr City on Sunday, alongside Iraqi Army troops. The fighting left 22 dead and 78 wounded, at least. It was not clear what the purpose of the attack was, since the US clearly cannot intensively occupy the labyrinthine Shiite slum and therefore cannot actually disarm the Mahdi Army. Were they attempting to impress on the Sadrists that rocket attacks on the Green Zone (see below) would bring retaliation?

In the course of the fighting, al-Zaman reports in Arabic, a rocket hit Jamila wholesalers’ market, where large food depots are located, setting it ablaze in a huge conflagration. It is not as if there was enough food to begin with, according to The Arab Times:

‘ US and Iraqi forces have imposed a blockade on vehicle traffic in and out of Sadr City for two weeks. Residents of the besieged district describe skyrocketing food prices, rubbish piling up and claustrophobia from being trapped indoors. “We haven’t been able to sleep since this fighting started two weeks ago,” said Wardan Ali, a student from Sadr City forced to walk 10 km (6 miles) on foot each way to university because of the blockade. Sadr’s bloc in parliament denounced the raids. “The intervention of US forces is horrible and unjustified. Some people in Sadr city believe these forces will hunt and kill them,” said Hassan Hashem, a Sadrist member of parliament’s security committee. ‘

Al-Zaman says that Salah al-Ubaidi of Kadhimiya warned that the three Shiite districts of Baghdad now under American siege faced a humanitarian catastrophe and called for international organizations to intervene.

Rocket attacks on the Green Zone killed 2 US troops on Sunday. Guerrillas killed another with rockets aimed at the Rustamiya base, where Iraqi cadets are trained. Another was killed in a roadside bombing. The fifth died in what the Pentagon characterized as a non-combat accident. But we’d have to know the exact circumstances to decide if combat was really no consideration in the death. If you drive off the road because you hear machine gun fire, it isn’t technically combat, but you would not have been spooked if there were no firing in the area.

Shiite guerrillas with at least some relationship to the Mahdi Army have been regularly sending mortar and rocket fire on the so-called Green Zone for some time, but they seldom used to hit anything. One question I hear asked in informed military circles is whether the special groups, which Muqtada al-Sadr considers Iranian puppets and rogues, have been given more accurate rockets by Iran, and maybe some better training in how to use them.

But the Mahdi Army is siphoning off a good $2 bn. a year in embezzled gasoline and kerosene, and it seems to me that with that sort of money you could pretty much buy anything you needed on the international arms black market. If Iran did not exist, would the situation in Iraq really be much different? It is all too convenient for the US to blame continued turmoil in Iraq on Iran, rather than to face up to the real divisions inside Iraq and the Bush administration’s role in exacerbating them.

AP reports that Iraq’s national security council, including the major Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties, on Sunday said that parties maintaining militias would not be allowed to contest the provincial elections in October. This move is a way of putting pressure on the Sadr Movement to disarm the Mahdi Army. But it may well backfire, since most Shiites in the south now appear to support the Sadrists. Excluding that party from the elections will more or less disenfranchise a majority of Iraqis.

Liwa’ al-Sumaysim, of the Sadr Movement, told al-Zaman that the Sadrists did not accept the authority of the National Security Council to issue such an ultimatum. He said that although the Sadrists do not believe in deploying militias for political purposes, the Mahdi Army was created because the Iraqi government is not providing security to neighborhoods, and that has not changed. When al-Zaman asked Sumaysim what would happen if the Sadrists were excluded from the elections, he replied that the Sadr Movement reserved the right to take up arms against the Occupier.

Sumaysim said that all the parties making this demand have their own militias, and he is more or less correct. The Kurds are not going to disband their Peshmerga paramilitary, which they have gotten recognized as the national guard of Kurdistan. ISCI is not going to disarm the Badr Corps, which has been infiltrated into the army and provincial police. Etc., etc. The Sadrists are a little unlikely to volunteer to be the only ones to disarm. But apparently they are being threatened with a US military campaign if they decline.

Up in Mosul, over 200 miles to the north of Baghdad, guerrillas kidnapped, then released, a bus load of 42 college students on Sunday. If guerrillas can do such a thing with impunity in broad daylight, there can’t be much security in the Mosul area.

The Times of London reports that US Gen. David Petraeus will report to the US Congress that Iranian fighters fought alongside Mahdi Army militiamen in Basra.

This fixation on Iran just doesn’t make any sense to me. The poor slum kids and Marsh Arabs in Basra who follow Muqtada al-Sadr don’t even like Iranians. The primary Iran-linked force in Basra is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq with its Badr Corps militia, which most Basrans code as Iranian puppets. One of my Iraqi correspondents told me that when the Badr Corps was fighting Marsh Arabs, local Basrans characterized it as ‘Iranians fighting Iraqis.’ The Badr Corps, according to the Iraqi press, fought alongside al-Maliki’s 14th Division against the Mahdi Army. The Badr Corps was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and it is alleged that many Badr Corps fighters are still on the Iranian payroll.

Iranians come through Basra on their way up to Karbala and Najaf on pilgrimage to sacred Shiite shrines, and a handful may have gotten caught up in the fighting. This sort of thing has happened before. [8,000 Iranian pilgrims caught in Iraq because of the fighting have just been recalled home, and a temporary halt on the pilgrimages has been called.) But that Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei of Iran deliberately sent Iranian troops or agents into Basra to undermine ISCI, Badr, and al-Maliki’s Da’wa (Islamic Missionary) Party on behalf of the Sadr Movement just strikes me as daft. It flies in the face of everything else we know about the relationship of these groups with Iran.

In fact, the Iranian leadership benefits from a united Iraqi Shiite community and the head of the Expediency Council, Akbar Rafsanajani, expressed concern about the faction-fighting among Iraqi Shiites. Iran brokered the cease-fire. If it wanted Shiite on Shiite fighting, why would it do that?

Neither the US nor Britain any longer has good intelligence on what is happening in the slums of Basra. If Petraeus is getting his information from al-Maliki on all this, he should be careful. The Da’wa and ISCI are perfectly capable of doing propaganda to embroil the US in their fights. In fact, their lies helped draw the US in, in the first place.

The US Institute of Peace concluded in a just-released report that there has been little political progress in Iraq, and that the US risks, as a result, being bogged down there for 5 to 10 years. If critics of the US presence are correct, Having so many US troops in Iraq may actually be delaying the compromises that Iraqis desperately need to make with one another. As it is, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki knows that he can just have the US Air Force bomb his enemies; he doesn’t need to come to an agreement with them.

Mohammad Bazzi of the CSM comments on the power vacuum in Iraqi Shiism, with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani having played no visible role in resolving the recent fighting in Basra. In fact, it was the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps that mediated a ceasefire. The shift of authority in such matters from Najaf to Qom, from Iraq to Iran, was important if it pointed to the future. Bazzi says that Sistani, 77, appears to be in declining health. He had angioplasty in London in summer of 2004.

Iraq’s nearly 1 million widows and vast numbers of orphans are not getting much attention or help.

McClatchy reports more political violence on Sunday here.