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Rice sees Iraqi unity emerging in battle against Sadr

Secretary of State Rice arrived in Baghdad on Sunday as Iraqi, US, and British forces continued to clash with the Mahdi Army.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 2008


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad Sunday as Iraq continued its assault on Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra.

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Mr. Sadr warned Saturday that continued attacks on his Shiite militiamen could spark an "all-out war." But Ms. Rice sees progress, saying a new political unity was emerging around Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to diminish the power and influence of the Mahdi Army.

"You have seen a coalescing of a center in Iraqi politics in which the Sunni leadership, the Kurdish leadership, and elements of the Shiite leadership that are not associated with these special groups have been working together better than at any time before," Rice said, referring to "special groups" within the Mahdi Army that the US says are rogue elements trained and funded by Iran.

With Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish leaders backing Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, Rice said the combined effort against Sadr marked a turning point that was a "moment of opportunity."

But the ongoing offensive against the Shiite militia, which began last month, didn't start well for Iraq. The government has charged some 1,300 Iraqi soldiers with retreating from and abandoning the initial Basra battle. The fighting spread to Baghdad, and scores of civilians have been killed. Also, in Basra, the situation didn't begin to calm until the United States military sent air power in support of government forces and a cease-fire was brokered in Iran.

On Saturday, Iraqi forces announced they had taken over the last Mahdi Army stronghold in Basra in operations with US and British forces. The Americans have been pressing Maliki for more than a year to confront the Shiite militias that have gained a stronghold over much of southern Iraq.

The brunt of the government's action fell on the Mahdi Army and other supporters of Sadr, who wields considerable power both in his parliamentary bloc and as an extragovernmental influence.

And as if to respond to Rice's high-profile show of American support for Maliki's actions, the Green Zone in Baghdad was rocked by mortar fire during the visit – probably fired from Sadr's bastion of support north of the center in Sadr City. In recent days the US military has built a wall around the southernmost section of the 2 million mostly poor residents in an effort to keep out the teams of rocket and mortar launchers who have used the area to target the Green Zone.

Gunmen also attacked a US checkpoint with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar shells. That strike sparked a battle between the US and the militiamen that left at least seven militants dead. Iraqi forces reportedly killed three men who they said were planting roadside bombs.

"There was an uptick in violence in comparison with the past couple of weeks," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover. He declined to link it to Sadr's warning, which was broadcast over mosque loudspeakers inside Sadr City late Saturday.

In his statement, Sadr said "[I am] giving my final warning to the Iraqi government … to abandon violence against the Iraqi people. If the government does not [stop its attacks] we will declare an all-out war until liberation."

But some Sadr supporters say they believe Sadr's principal fight is likely to remain political. They claim Maliki's split with Sadr is really over carving up Shiite support in provincial elections set for this fall. But they also say that Sadr's supporters will rally to him, especially if he is perceived to be under attack from the American-backed Maliki.