Monday 16 June 2008
by: Andrew E. Kramer and Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times
Editor’s Note: This story describes a military operation by, “Iraqi forces”. Scant mention is made of support for the operation by US military forces. In fact the so called Iraqi military is organized, funded and often backed in operations directly by US military forces. This fact omitted by The New York Times is conspicuous by it’s absence. ma/TO
Baghdad – The Iraqi Army continued to mass troops outside the southern city of Amara on Sunday and Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, offered a three-day amnesty and weapons buyback program to militants willing to surrender.
Similar offers in the past few months have presaged other military operations, in Basra, the Sadr City slum of Baghdad and in Mosul in northern Iraq.
This time, Mr. Maliki is preparing for an operation against the capital of a rural marsh region in southern Iraq, on the Iranian border, where Iraqi officials say a poisonous blend of militia lawlessness and weapons smuggling from Iran has created a chaotic situation.
The city is also the capital of the only province in Iraq dominated politically by followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, a political rival for Mr. Maliki.
In the city Sunday, traffic thinned on the streets. Those who did venture out in cars said they feared American air strikes.
Some residents said the militiamen Mr. Maliki’s government is focusing on, and who Iraqi commanders say include leaders who fled from earlier fighting in nearby Basra, had again fled.
Still, Iraqi army patrols were setting up checkpoints in the city Sunday and searching cars, some driven by residents moving to neighborhoods they believed would be safer during the anticipated fighting.
“We are very scared of the waves of military moving into Maysan,” Abdul Ameer Abbas, a 41-year-old high school teacher, said, referring to Iraqi army troops who have been staging outside of town and in a sports stadium.
Haider Karim, a 35-year-old Taxi driver, said the militiamen had already fled and that the civilians would bear the brunt of the military operation.
“The security forces must follow these criminals wherever they go because they terrified innocent people,” he said. “We don’t want to be terrified again by the warplanes and troops.”
The operation is the Iraqi army’s fourth this year to regain control over militia-dominated cities. Though disparate in their specific blend of violence and ethnic and sectarian divides, in all three cities the army has followed a template including offers of amnesty backed by military force.
Mr. Maliki, in a statement, said militias in the city had three days to take advantage of the amnesty and surrender heavy weapons, such as rocket propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars and rockets. The government, he said, would “give the outlaws and the members of the organized crime groups a last chance to review their stance.”
The statement also promised rewards for residents who reveal the locations of militia arms caches in the city.
The Maysan province, rural and remote from Baghdad, lies amid vast marshes. The dozen or so tribes in the area have an independent streak; even Saddam Hussein could not force them into submission.
After an uprising in the marshes after the 1991 Gulf War, Mr. Hussein sought to stamp out the way of life of the marsh Arabs, as they are known, by digging giant canals to drain the wetlands. Outside of Amara, the capital on the Tigris River, the province of about 920,000 people includes settlements built of reed huts.
Meanwhile a spokesman for the movement loyal to Mr. Sadr clarified statements made earlier in the weekend that suggested that Sadrists would not participate in the upcoming elections.
On the contrary, said cleric Lua’a Smaysim, the head of the Sadr movement’s political committee, Sadrists will run, but not under the Sadr banner. They will run as independents or possibly as part of other groups, he said.
“We will participate in the next elections, but there is no Sadrist list,” said Mr. Smaysim. “We will participate as individuals. Also we will support a lot of independent nominations from another lists.”
Mr. Sadr, a protean force on the Iraqi political scene, in recent days appeared to be redesigning his movement to avoid being affected by a new election law expected to be approved this month that will govern elections in the fall for provincial council members. The law will outlaw the participation of parties or movements that have an armed wing.
The ban on parties that have militias is clearly aimed at Mr. Sadr’s followers because his movement is affiliated with the Jaish al-Mahdi, an armed group, said Saad al-Hadithy, a political science professor at Baghdad University.
“Therefore the Sadr movement decided to participate in this election through individuals who represent this movement and still have loyalty to it, but who are using their own names,” he said. “Those independent politicians will say that they are independents, but they are related to the Sadr movement in one way or another,’ he said
Some may participate by joining the new political alliance created by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaferi, also a Shiite, said Mr. Hadithy as well as Shiite politicians.” The Sadr movement declared that they will participate with new entities or with independent individuals and this of course is to avoid being banned from the next elections because of their militia, ” said Basim Sharif, a parliament member from the Shiite Fadhila Party,
Mr. Sadr had announced on Friday that he was splitting his movement in two and that the political wing would no longer be involved in any military operations. By the end of the weekend, it appeared that when it came to fielding candidates, it would no longer carry the Sadr name.
The Sadr movement has broad popularity among the poor and had been predicted to garner more seats in the upcoming provincial elections. Such an outcome would almost certainly mean fewer seats for members of Shiite parties loyal to Mr. Maliki.
Recent operations by government forces in Basra and Sadr City have weakened Mr. Sadr, said a western diplomat who is closely watching the situation, but Iraqi political commentators say he remains a unique populist force in Iraq.
“Most of the places targeted by the government military operations are widely popular with the Sadr movement,” said Mr. Sharif.
“The government says that it’s not targeting a specific party but the most targeted is the Sadr movement because of its popularity and its resistance to the occupation.”
Suadad al-Salhy and Mudhafer al-Husaini contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Amara.