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Daily Column
US Papers Saturday: 19 Tense Hours in Sadr City
Fighting continues against Mahdi Army; U.S. has little influence in Iraq's south
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 03/29/2008 01:52 AM ET
Things are getting very hairy in Baghdad and Basra. The Washington Post gets a reporter into Sadr City where he's trapped for 19 hours. The story makes for tense reading. Also, the Americans are getting more deeply involved in the fighting, despite having little political influence in the south. And President George W. Bush continues to see only good things in Iraq.

Over there
The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan files a fronter from the front lines in Sadr City. He spent 19 hours on a block in the Shi'ite enclave, several of them trapped in the crossfire between Mahdi Army fighters and American forces. It's a great inside account of the battle, and gives a real feel for the fighting. It also gives an insight into the Sadrists' thinking. Many of them believe the assault on Basra -- which prompted the fighting that erupted in Baghdad and elsewhere -- is an attempt to weaken the Sadr Current before the provincial elections in October. And it illuminates brightly the obsession with martyrdom. "We are proud that he died," said Abu Moussa al-Sadr of his friend Akeel. "Whenever one of us dies, it raises our morale. It intensifies our fighting."

"If we defeat them, we win," added Abu Zainab al-Kabi. "And if we die, we win."

The Mahdi fighters insist they are upholding the cease-fire, as it allows them to defend themselves. If the order comes to stop fighting, they will stop, they say. But for the moment, the strategy in Sadr City is to draw pressure away from Basra.

Sholnn Freeman of the Post reports that U.S. jets bombed targets in Basra, the first time American airpower has been called in for the current fighting. Freeman calls the ground offensive "faltering." The Americans are taking the lead in the fighting in Baghdad while Iraqi security forces are concentrating on the south. Mortar shells hit the Green Zone again, killing two guards at the offices of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and wounding four others. While an Iraqi government spokesman said the Iraqi forces were "doing well," a source in the police command in Basra expected British and U.S. ground forces to enter the fight in Basra in the coming days. Mahdi Army sources also expect this. In a sign that things aren't going well, Maliki extended his deadline for the fighters to surrender, to April 8. While Basra was relatively calm Friday, violence raged south of Najaf, Nasiriyah and Kut.

Erica Goode reports on the violence for The New York Times, taking a big picture view of the situation. She briskly touches on the politics of the fighting, both in Iraq and in the United States, where it could shake up the presidential race. She manages a scooplet: A Western official said a small number of American troops had entered Basra for the first time in years, but mainly to monitor the performance of the Iraqi forces. They're probably Special Forces. As much as 50 to 70 percent of Basra is still under the control of Shi'ite militias. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's allies are starting to get nervous, with Kurds and Shi'ites in parliament refusing to show up for a meeting to discuss the violence. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurd, said the Sadr Current has seats in parliament and should have been negotiated with before being attacked. There are also conflicting stories about what the U.S. knew, and when. Stephen J. Hadley, the national security advisor, said Maliki had known of the Basra operation in advance, contradicting reports that the Iraqis had acted without consulting with the Americans. The military is also denying moving many troops into Sadr City, saying the cease-fire is holding and the fighting in Baghdad is just a reaction to Basra from the so-called "Special Groups." In addition to the fighting in the south and the attacks on the Green Zone, an American soldier died south of Baghdad from a homemade bomb.

Home front
Karen DeYoung of the Post reports that White House officials admitted that years of a "hands off" policy in the south of Iraq has left them with little knowledge of the militias and little influence. And while President George W. Bush hailed Iraq's "defining moment," other officials fretted that the situation could spiral out of control.

"This is a precarious situation," a senior official familiar with U.S. intelligence in southern Iraq said, with "a lot to be gained and a lot to lose." This official and others said that even as Maliki takes needed military action in Basra, he appears to be positioning himself and his Shiite political allies for dominance in provincial elections this fall.

The Times's Steven Lee Meyers reports that Bush has called this a "defining moment" for Iraq. He praised Maliki for not consulting with the U.S. or speaking with him since the offensive started, suggesting that openly attacking a well-armed Shi'ite militia that outguns him was a sign of Iraqi military and political maturity. "We'll help him, but this was his decision," Bush said. "It was his military planning. It was his causing the troops to go from point A to point B. And it's exactly what, you know, a lot of folks here in America were wondering whether or not Iraq would ever be able to do in the first place. And it's happening." Except he needs U.S. troops and jets to finish the job.

Greg Trotter, the Post's religion writer, reports on Water Reed's chaplain who helps amputees and other wounded troops.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
Jennifer Dunning reviews Victoria Marks dance project on the Iraq war, but decides it's a disappointment.

Wall Street Journal David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, who served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, argue that the two American guys in Iraq pleading for access to U.S. courts should be left to the fate of the Iraqi "justice" system. One wonders if they would be so quick to dismiss these guys fear of torture and execution at the hands of a deeply corrupt legal system if they were native-born citizens or weren't facing terrorism charges.

Amir Taheri, author of "The Persian Night: Iran and the Khomeinist Revolution," makes a strong case that Iran would help al Qaeda in Iraq operatives to bloody the United States' nose. The subtext of this op-ed is: Sen. John McCain was right! Eat that Democrats! What do you expect? It's the Journal's editorial page.

USA Today and Christian Science Monitor
No weekend edition.

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