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The Latest
Meeting Follows Reports of Possible Brewing Confrontation in Shrine City
04/23/2008 4:08 PM ET
Tribal leaders from the Najaf area meet in support of the Sadrist Current.
The Promised Day
Tribal leaders from the Najaf area meet in support of the Sadrist Current.

As news spreads of a possible brewing conflict between Iraqi government forces and Shi'a militia associated with the Mahdi Army in Najaf, an official Sadrist website has announced that tribal leaders loyal to the Sadrist Current have gathered in the shrine city to express frustration with the actions of the Iraqi government and Coalition forces and to send a delegation to the Iraqi prime minister in what they describe as a "last initiative" to avert conflict.

An official Sadrist website known as The Promised Day carries an item that says that the Tribal Council of the Sadrist office in Najaf met with tribal leaders of the south and central Euphrates.

The site writes in Arabic that Shaykh Muhannad al-Gharawi, identified as an official related to the Sadrist tribal council, said that "The crims that the Occupation forces and the Iraqi government are conducting now in Basra and Sadr City and Karbala and Nasiriya and other Iraqi cities, and their use of the style of oppression and terror reminds us of the practices of the previous destroyer" of Iraq, a reference to the deposed Ba'thist regime.

"Now they are closing all the doors to dialogue before the polititians and parliamentarians in the Sadrist bloc," he said, saying that the most recent example of this alleged posture is Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's recent trip to Kuwait to participate in a regional conference, "refusing any solution" to the domestic confrontation with the Sadrists.

Another leader, Hazim al-Araji discussed the continuing arrests and raids against the members of the Sadrist Current in Basra and Sadr City, despite the initiative of Muqtada al-Sadr which delivered the government from the predicament it was certain to fall into in Basra, but unfortunately it has not abided by what it agreed to through repeated delegations that visited Najaf and the desire to stop the killing in Basra to save face for Maliki, in the words of the Sadrist website.

The news is potentially significant after reports in the Arabic-language media yesterday suggested that the tense shrine city of Najaf could be the next site of open confrontation between the Mahdi Army, the militia affiliated with the Sadrist Current, and the Iraqi security forces, suggesting that Mahdi Army militiamen have headed for Najaf from other parts of Iraq to prepare for a clash.

Tensions have flared in the holy Shi'a city, the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, and a major site of Shi'a religious scholarship and pilgrimage, after the assassination of Riyad al-Nuri a top aide to his brother-in-law Muqtada al-Sadr earlier in the month.

The Sadrist website added that, in the gathering, other tribal leaders announced their frustration with what they said is the "killing, displacement, destruction taking place in their provinces at the hand of the Iraqi government."

In the last meeting the tribal leaders presented their suggestions, agreeing to form a delegation of tribal leaders in the center and south of Iraq, along with representatives of the Sadrist offices, to attempt to meet PM Maliki in "a last initiative to stop the bloodshed that flows among the Iraqi people," the website writes.

The tribal leaders also promised that they would follow the teachings of the Sadrist Current, specifically the two late clerics Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the father and father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr, respectively.

Daily Column
Maliki weakened by Basra debacle; Tense calm settles over former battlegrounds
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 04/01/2008 01:38 AM ET
It's unanimous: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost the Battle of Basra. Every paper reports that angle, with the Wall Street Journal being the most explicit. Much of today's coverage revolves around the new relative calm and the increased weakness of the prime minister.

Over there
The New York Times's James Glanz writes that calm is returning to Basra, as the Mahdi Army has melted away and the Iraqi Army and police units taking over neighborhoods formerly held by the militia. Also, the Maliki government dodged questions on whether it would honor Moqtada al-Sadr's demands that ended the fighting. This being Iraq, details on the negotiations are murky, with some officials saying Maliki was directly involved in the talks and agreed to al-Sadr's demands in advance. Others said the government wasn't involved directly and that al-Sadr's demands wouldn't be taken seriously. (Bluster, perhaps?) Rockets and mortar shells continued to rain down on the Green Zone, and an American soldier died Monday from a roadside bomb attack. Another soldier died from wounds suffered March 23. Sadr City and other scenes of fighting saw life return, and people began counting their dead. In Nasiriyah, officials said 165 people died and 300 were wounded. Karbala saw 12 people killed and 500 arrested. An Interior Ministry spokesman said government security forces had killed 215 Mahdi Army fighters, wounded 600 and arrested 155. He gave no figures for government forces. Another Interior official said 150 police officers and 400 policemen had been fired for refusing the fight. Maliki said he had evidence the violence of Basra was a result of interference by "neighboring countries."

Sholnn Freeman of the Post has the story, noting that as people ventured out, they found roads littered with unexploded roadside bombs, shattered markets and other destruction. Also newsworthy, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the fighting would not affect plans to end the surge this spring and summer.

The Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher reports that several conclusions are clear:

Mr. Sadr has demonstrated his power, despite the blows dealt to his movement over the past few years. The government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, thanked him profusely on Monday for his decision, but vowed that the fight would continue in Basra, where militiamen have now largely melted away from the streets, but remain very much in control of their strongholds.
Also worrying were the large-scale incidents of defections among the Iraqi Army and police units. This should be the thing keeping U.S. commanders up at night. As Dagher writes, "despite all the funding and training from the US, Iraq's soldiers remain greatly swayed by their sectarian and party loyalties and are incapable of standing up in a fight without US backing." People in Sadr strongholds are angrier with the U.S. and the Maliki government now, giving the young cleric juice for his April 9 comeback to Baghdad. It's quite extraordinary. Given up as marginalized, fled to Iran and expressing disappointment at the way Iraq was going, Sadr now seems to be reinvigorated.

A Monitor editorial says Gen. David H. Petraeus needs to be forthright in his report on Iraq and say whether the Battle of Basra has made it easier or not for the U.S. to pull out.

The Wall Street Journal's Yochi J. Dreazen leads with the statement: "The Iraqi government's inability to oust Moqtada al-Sadr's militia from Basra has boosted the fortunes of the Shiite cleric while damaging the standing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki." This may be one of the better analyses on the fighting, examining its ramifications for both Iraqi and American politics. (It likely won't help John McCain.) "President Bush was right that Basra marked a defining moment for Iraq, but not in the way that he intended," said Vali Nasr, a scholar of Shiite politics at Tufts University who has advised U.S. policy makers. "This is the birth of Sadrist power." But then, Bush has a talent for backing the wrong horse in Iraq fights. His reliance on exiles has constantly undermined the U.S. mission there.

Sudarsan Raghavan of the Post puts a human face on the fighting in Baghdad, reporting on the shooting of a family in Zafraniya, allegedly by American troops. (The U.S. military says it has no knowledge of any exchange.) Raghavan's good at bringing the human emotion out in these situations, but I'm not sure this warrants front-page play.

Home front
Stephen Barr of the Post reports that veterans are having a tougher time finding a job in today's tight labor market.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Washington Post
Eugene Robinson, a regular op-ed columnist, takes McCain (and Bush) to task over Iraq, saying that if the past week was a "defining moment" for Iraq, it defined Maliki as an impulsive leader and an inept general -- and his government as a work barely in progress. Ouch!

New York Times
Neil Genzlinger reviews "Bad Voodoo's War," a "Frontline" episode premiering tonight.

USA Today
No original coverage today.

Daily Column
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.

The Latest
Rival MPs Trade Barbs after Return from Visit to Contested Southern Province
01/29/2008 7:34 PM ET
Jalal al-Din al-Saghir in April 2007.
Wathiq Khuzaie/AFP.
Jalal al-Din al-Saghir in April 2007.

MPs from two rival Shi'a blocs traded allegations over an ongoing campaign of arrests in a restive southern province, exposing the fragile security situation in an area of the Iraqi south hotly contested between the two trends.

Parliamentarians from the Shi'a factions of the Sadrist Current and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council both returned from Diwaniya recently, and came away with rival interpretations of the unstable security situation in the province.

Sadrist leaders have accused the local authorities in Diwaniya of arbitrary arrests and raids, calling for legal intervention to hold local leaders responsible for the alleged violations.

Nassar al-Rubai'i, the leader of the Sadrist bloc in Parliament, escalated these charges in a press conference Monday at the Iraqi parliament, for the first time naming the governor of the province, Hamid Mousa Ahmad al-Khadri, directly in the allegations. Al-Khadri is an SIIC affiliate.

Rubai'i's remarks were the most explicit yet demanding an investigation of the governor of the province, Hamid al-Khadri, indicating that the bloc accuses the governor to be a party to what it calls the arrests and random raids, al-Malaf Press writes in Arabic.

The Sadrists have also pointed the finger of accusation towards Husayn al-Budayri, an official on the Diwaniya provincial council security committee, who, according to the Sadrist allegations, has led the Diwaniya security forces to move arbitrarily against the Sadrist current in the province, al-Malaf Press writes.

Military leaders in the province insist that the operations target only those outside the law and do not discriminate with regards to political affiliation.

MPs from the SIIC have supported the military's claims, and responded to the Sadrist allegations with calls for unity among the Shi'a Muslims of the area, and called also for the implementation of an agreement inked in the summer of 2007 between the leaders of the two factions, Muqtada al-Sadr of the Sadrist current, and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the SIIC. The Sadr-Hakim pact committed each side to avoid rifts within the Shi'a community. However, Sadrists are skeptical of recent exhortations to abide by the pact, which they see as a Trojan Horse for the SIIC agenda for a federal Shi'a region in Iraq, and political cover for the alleged campaign against the current in Diwaniya province and elsewhere.

The Sadrist current is opposed not only to the proposed Shi'a federal region in the Iraqi south, but also to the principle of federalism in Iraq more generally.

As MPs from both blocs visit the Diwaniya area, signs of local-level fissures in the Sadr-Hakim pact are visible, al-Malaf Press writes, and tensions remain high on the ground between the two rival Shi'a factions in the province. On several occasions in the last year, rival militias from the two trends have clashed violently in the streets of the capital, and al-Malaf Press's correspondent sees signs of deterioration in a recent period of calm in the province as the arrest raids continue.

Shaykh Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a Shi'a cleric and SIIC MP visited Diwaniya and delivered a lengthy sermon in support of federalism and of the province's laws, while expressing displeasure with the demands of the Sadrist current.

Meanwhile, Governor al-Khadri, said that no official committee for human rights had come forward to the governor's office regarding the Sadrists' complaints, and added that "We are prepared to meet with such committees, on the condition that they be official (committees)" from the Maliki government.

Two Sadrists in the province were detained in Diwaniya city on Tuesday, according to Abu Zaynab al-Karaawi, spokesperson for the Sadrist office. VOI writes that al-Karaawi said the arrests occurred after security forces stormed their homes in the al-Jumhouri district of the provincial capital.

Daily Column
Attacks up against mainly Sunni force; Mosul explosion kills at least 14
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 01/24/2008 01:44 AM ET
The New York Times knocks its lead story out of the park today, a long look at the fragility and pressures on the Awakening Councils that are the linchpins of the American strategy in Iraq these days.

Over there
It looks like jihadists have discovered the "fragile linchpin" in the U.S.'s strategy in Iraq: the Awakening councils. Solomon Moore and Richard A. Oppel Jr. of the Times report for the papers lead story that at least 100 prominent Sunni militiamen have been killed in the last month, mostly around Baghdad and Baqoubah. Since it started two years ago, the Awakening movement has grown to be an 80,000-man force, 80 percent of it Sunni. But the recent violence is raising the prospect of the groups' dispersal, with many rejoining the insurgency. American and Iraqi officials blame Al Qaeda in Iraq, and note the spike in attacks after a Dec. 29 audio recording from Osama bin Laden called the volunteers "traitors" and "infidels." The Mahdi Army and Badr Organization are carrying out some of the attacks out, though, according to both Sunni and Shi'ite officials. Iran may also have a hand in the bloodshed, American officials say, with its al Quds force directing the two Shi'ite militias. This has led Awakening members themselves to see the Shi'ite militias as the main threat, not al Qaeda. The killings are mounting as the groups are becoming more frustrated with the Shi'ite-dominated central government. It has yet to fulfill its promise to put 20 percent of the volunteers into the ministries of the Interior and Defense and give non-security jobs to the rest. Combined with the attacks, there is fear the Awakening movement could fall apart. This is a must-read.

Alissa J. Rubin of the Times handles the daily roundup. In Mosul, a building used to store ammunition by insurgents blew up in a crowded neighborhood, killing at least 14 people and wounding 134. The building was a bomb factory used by insurgents. As police approached it, it exploded. Mosul is apparently heating up again. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accepted an invitation to visit Iraq, but no date has been set. It would be the first visit by an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A suicide car bomber struck in Kirkuk, killing seven people and wounding 14. And in Baghdad, gunmen killed three Iraqi Army soldiers and wounded two civilians in a drive-by shooting. Three unidentified bodies were found in the capital.

The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow has the story of the Mosul explosion. Partlow does a nice job of putting Mosul and Nineveh province into the context of the overall violence in Iraq (it's still high up there) as well as placing it in the big Operation Iron Harvest that's still going on. Elsewhere, two academics were fatally shot, one in Baghdad and one in Mosul.

USA Today's Charles Levinson writes that Fallujah is no longer the dangerous city it once was, but it's still lacking in basic services. And the lack of water, power and jobs could send the city back into bloodshed, city officials warn. (Of course, they could just be trash-talking the situation to speed things up or get more money.) "The government in Baghdad always said they couldn't help because Fallujah was too dangerous and too filled with terrorists," says Hamed Ahmed, an influential tribal sheik. "Now Fallujah is more secure than Baghdad -- and still there is no help." Levinson does a good job describing the situation -- the city gets only four hours of electricity a day, little running water and no sewage treatment -- but he doesn't really get at the possibility of it really backsliding.

Political battles Michael Abramowitz of the Post reports that Democrats, including the presidential candidates, have attacked the White House's plans to forge a long-term security agreement with Iraq. They complain that President George W. Bush is trying to lock the next president into a lasting U.S. military presence there. Well, yes. Yes he is. The White House is trying to secure what amounts to a Status of Forces Agreement, which would govern the legal status of U.S. troops in Iraq. The larger agreement between the two governments, however, provides for "security assurances and commitments" to deter foreign aggression. That sounds like troops will be there, well, forever. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said Bush is trying "to bind the United States government and his successor to his failed policy."

IN OTHER COVERAGE

Washington Post
Walter Pincus reports that Reps. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla. and John D. Dingell, D-Mich., asked Bush to add $1.5 billion to his spending next year on the Iraq war to help pay for several Iraqi refugee programs.

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