Update: American-trained Iraqi security forces failed for a third straight day to oust Shiite militias from the southern city of Basra on Thursday, even as President Bush hailed the operation as a sign of the growing strength of Iraq’s federal government.
By James Glanz and Graham Bowley / The New York Times Thursday 27 March 2008
Baghdad – In direct confrontation with the American-backed government in Iraq, thousands of supporters of the powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia took to the streets of Baghdad on Thursday to protest the Iraqi Army’s assault on the southern port city of Basra, as intense fighting continued there for a third day.
In Basra, there seemed to be no breakthrough in the fighting by either side. As much as half of the city remained under militia control, hospitals in some parts of the city were reported full, and the violence continued to spread. Clashes were reported all over the city and in locations 12 miles south of Basra.
The Iraqi Army’s offensive in Basra is an important political test for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and for American forces eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively on their own. President Bush sought to portray the fighting in a positive light on Thursday, declaring the offensive by Mr. Maliki’s government a “bold decision.”
But if the assault in Basra leads the Mahdi Army to break completely with its current cease-fire, which has helped to tamp down attacks in Iraq during the past year, there is a risk of escalating violence and of replaying 2004. That year, the militia fought intense battles with American forces that destabilized the entire country.
The assault has already touched off violent reprisals by some outraged Mahdi supporters in other cities, including in Baghdad, where the boom of rocket fire rattled the city all day Wednesday and continued Thursday with reports of a rocket strike on the fortified Green Zone near the United States Embassy.
[For the rest of this article, go here, and here for the update at NY Times.]