Sunday, April 6, 2008

Corporate media buzzing with signs of an impending US attack on Mehdi Army and Iran

Iran joined militias in battle for Basra

Sarah Baxter and Marie Colvin, Times Online

IRANIAN forces were involved in the recent battle for Basra, General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, is expected to tell Congress this week.

Military and intelligence sources believe Iranians were operating at a tactical command level with the Shi’ite militias fighting Iraqi security forces; some were directing operations on the ground, they think.

Petraeus intends to use the evidence of Iranian involvement to argue against any reductions in US forces.

Dr Daniel Goure, a defence analyst at the Lexington Institute in Virginia, said: “There is no question that Petraeus will be tough on Iran. It is one thing to withdraw troops when there is purely sectarian fighting but it is another thing if it leaves the Iranians to move in.”

US defence chiefs are concerned that the troop surge has overstretched the military. Admiral Mike McMullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned that the army and marines were at risk of crossing an “invisible red line” if the burden on forces remained. He said deployments of 15 months had to be reduced to a year “as fast as possible”.

Petraeus is likely to announce that combat tours will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months.

The number of US troops in Iraq is set to fall from 160,000 to 140,000 by July, but Petraeus is expected to recommend an indefinite pause in further troop cuts.

Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric, has called for 1m people to march on Baghdad on Wednesday – the fifth anniversary of the fall of the capital – when Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, will be briefing Congress.

A senior Iraqi official who met Petraeus last week said, “It will be difficult to show that the situation is improving.” Another Iraqi source described the US general as “furious” that al-Maliki moved against the militias into Basra without consultation and had to rely on US forces to bail him out.

Abu Ahmed, a senior military commander with the Awakening, the Sunni tribal movement cooperating with US forces, said progress was largely the result of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army ceasefire.

“When the Mahdi Army decides to resume its activities, neither the American troops nor the Iraqi government will be able to stop it,” he said.

Additional reporting: Hala Jaber

British fear US commander is beating the drum for Iran strikes

By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, The Telegraph

British officials gave warning yesterday that America's commander in Iraq will declare that Iran is waging war against the US-backed Baghdad government.

A strong statement from General David Petraeus about Iran's intervention in Iraq could set the stage for a US attack on Iranian military facilities, according to a Whitehall assessment. In closely watched testimony in Washington next week, Gen Petraeus will state that the Iranian threat has risen as Tehran has supplied and directed attacks by militia fighters against the Iraqi state and its US allies.

The outbreak of Iraq's worst violence in 18 months last week with fighting in Basra and the daily bombardment of the Green Zone diplomatic enclave, demonstrated that although the Sunni Muslim insurgency is dramatically diminished, Shia forces remain in a strong position to destabilise the country.

"Petraeus is going to go very hard on Iran as the source of attacks on the American effort in Iraq," a British official said. "Iran is waging a war in Iraq. The idea that America can't fight a war on two fronts is wrong, there can be airstrikes and other moves," he said.

"Petraeus has put emphasis on America having to fight the battle on behalf of Iraq. In his report he can frame it in terms of our soldiers killed and diplomats dead in attacks on the Green Zone."

Tension between Washington and Tehran is already high over Iran's covert nuclear programme. The Bush administration has not ruled out military strikes.

In remarks interpreted as signalling a change in his approach to Iran, Gen Petraeus last week hit out at the Iranian leadership. "The rockets that were launched at the Green Zone were Iranian-provided, Iranian-made rockets," he said. "All of this in complete violation of promises made by President Ahmadinejad and the other most senior Iranian leaders to their Iraqi counterparts."

The humiliation of the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki by the Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in fighting in Basra last week triggered top-level warnings over Iran's strength in Iraq.

Gen Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, will answer questions from American political leaders at the US Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday before travelling to London to brief Gordon Brown.

The Wall Street Journal said last week that the US war effort in Iraq must have a double goal.

"The US must recognise that Iran is engaged in a full-up proxy war against it in Iraq," wrote the military analyst Kimberly Kagan.

There are signs that targeting Iran would unite American politicians across the bitter divide on Iraq. "Iran is the bull in the china shop," said Ike Skelton, the Democrat chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "In all of this, they seem to have links to all of the Shi'ite groups, whether they be political or military."

Al-Sadr militia prep for U.S., Iraqi fighting

By Sharon Behn, Washington Times

Militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are positioning explosives to defend the major routes into Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood in anticipation of a major battle with U.S. and Iraqi government forces, residents said yesterday.

Iraqis also said families in Sadr City and other Shi'ite areas of Baghdad are stocking up on food, fearing new fighting that will leave them unable to get to the markets.

While food prices in most of Baghdad are stable, they have increased in Sadr City and surrounding neighborhoods as people brace for a resumption of fighting that rocked the neighborhood late last month, said Sajad, an Iraqi translator who spoke with several residents in the Shi'ite stronghold on behalf of The Washington Times.

Tomatoes that were 30 cents to 40 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds) are now $2.50 a kilo, and the price of eggs and cheese have gone up three to five times their normal price, said Sajad.

In a southwest neighborhood of Baghdad, where Shi'ite militiamen have recently been pushed out, neighbors warned Ahmed, the father of three young children in the area, that there could be another rebel Shi'ite uprising as soon as tomorrow — two days before Gen. David H. Petreaus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to report to Congress on progress in the U.S. troop surge.

The warning, Ahmed said, appeared to come from Sadr City, so it would only affect Baghdad. Orders to Shi'ite militia across the country normally are issued from Najaf, a holy city in southern Iraq where Sheik al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is headquartered.

In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said they had no way of confirming Mahdi Army preparations for the Sadr City battle, but added that it is "entirely possible."

One official said the Mahdi Army is likely to try to reignite violence. "It's obviously a fluid situation."

In the U.S.-protected International Zone in central Baghdad, private contractors were "hardening" their rooms to avoid getting killed or injured in the event of another rocket and mortar barrage, similar to the one that followed the government push against Sheik al-Sadr's militia last week in southern Iraq.

"I've moved my desk so that I won't be in the line of shrapnel," said Jack, a 32-year-old American working for a U.S. company who has spent 16 months in Iraq.

"I'm wearing my Kevlar a lot," he added, referring to his body armor. Jack, like others quoted in this story, asked that family names not be used.

The unease in Baghdad comes amid calls by Sheik al-Sadr for a massive anti-American rally Wednesday to mark the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

"The time has come to express your rejections and raise your voices loud against the unjust occupier and enemy of nations and humanity, and against the horrible massacres committed by the occupier against our honorable people," said a statement released by Sheik-al Sadr's office.

The statement called on all Iraqis to head toward Najaf, the site of large Shi'ite pilgrimages.

Shi'ite areas have been told to close their stores to commemorate the day, said Ahmed. The last time stores were ordered closed was when the battles between Iraqi troops and Shi'ite militias erupted last week in the southern city of Basra.

"All Shi'ite neighbors, they tell me — maybe Sunday — we have second attacks ... they will come back and attack the government," said Ahmed.

It was not possible to confirm the threats, but the reports were fueling unease in the capital, which only recently had begun to feel a modicum of security after months of concentrated military operations by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a Shi'ite once allied with Sheikh al-Sadr — had warned the crackdown against the Shi'ite militias would continue despite the truce ordered by the anti-American cleric.

Yesterday, however, Mr. al-Maliki backed off the threat, saying the arrests of Shi'ite suspects would be suspended.

But Sadr City residents are nervous, said Ahmed, and the militias are preparing for another showdown with U.S. and coalition forces.

"When they see American convoys, they quickly put IEDs in the street and everywhere they will attack Americans," he said, referring to bombs planted in roads.

Hassan, a Shi'ite doctor who lives in a different neighborhood and does not support the Mahdi Army militia, said he also expects the fighting to flare up again and that the streets of Sadr City are booby-trapped.

"This is the quiet before the storm," he said. "But I am sure that if anyone, government or coalition attack Sadr City it will be a big loss, because all the roads of Sadr City are filled with explosives."

Iraqi reactions to the fighting in Basra and Baghdad varied. Some praised the prime minister for taking on the Mahdi militia, others said Muqtada's ability to turn the violence on and off only strengthened his hand, and that of his backer, Iran.

While Iraqi government forces struck hard, they ended up by having to call on U.S. air support after being overwhelmed by the Shi'ite militia response.

Hundreds of police — many of whom were Sheik al-Sadr supporters — reportedly laid down their weapons and joined the militia in both Basra and Sadr City.

"In some areas around Sadr City, the militia are part of the police," said Ahmed.

In other areas, police responded differently he said. Some "left their post to return to their unit, some continued to attack militia."

• Sara A. Carter contributed to this article.