Witnesses in Basra said there was little evidence that security forces had moved the Mahdi Army out of neighborhoods they had long controlled. In the western Hayaniya neighborhood, where the Mahdi Army has fought with security forces, only gunmen and a few residents were seen on Thursday. Mahdi checkpoints were highly visible, often consisting of at least half a dozen fighters armed with weapons like rocket-propelled grenades.
“The gunmen are not allowing any military convoys to pass near the area,” said Ameen Ali Sakran, a Hayaniya resident.
Alaa Abdul Samad, an educational supervisor who lives in the Mahdi-controlled Kibla neighborhood a couple of miles south of the city center, said he had not seen any official army vehicles during the assault.
“The gunmen have controlled even the Kibla police station and taken all its weapons,” Mr. Samad said. “The area is now in the hands of the militias, and there is no army except some of the helicopters that fly around.”
Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammed, the director of military operations in Iraq, echoed other Iraqi and American officials on Thursday by saying that the operation was not specifically aimed at the Mahdi Army but at any “criminals” who would not lay down their weapons. But witnesses said there was little fighting in neighborhoods that had been controlled by the Badr and Fadhila militias.
Estimates by Basra residents of how much of the city is in the Mahdi Army’s hands ranged from 50 percent to much higher. “We have soldiers in Basra, and they are doing fine,” said a militiaman in Baghdad named Abu Ali, who identified himself as a division commander for the Mahdi Army. “They are in full control.”
Those estimates of how much of the city was under Mahdi control were disputed by Mr. Rikabi. “No, this is not true, this is not true,” he said, though he offered no specific estimate.
Other reports suggest that the Iraqi forces were not prepared for the fierce resistance the Mahdi fighters would demonstrate. In fact, it seems probably that the field was tilted in favor of the Mahdi Army from the outset(via Tim F):
The Iraqi Army force in Basra is a single division of lightly supported infantry with some US/UK locally controlled air support, minimal artillery, minimal aviation support. Basra is a city of 2.6 million people (2003) and it is overwhelmingly Shi'ite. If one assumes that one half of one percent of the male population are available to be called up for Mahdi Army fighting units, the defenders have numerical parity with the attacking force. That is never a good thing, especially when the defenders are on their own grounds, fighting from prepared positions in dense urban networks and have higher morale and more firepower than the attackers.
So again --- why was this attacked launched with what looks to be massively insufficient force levels on the part of the Iraqi Army? Was it pure staff stupidity/buying into your own propaganda that the JAM is a bunch of thugs with no popular support? Was it that the 14th Division was the only reliable division? Was it a hope that the introduction of a large force would destabilize the local equilibriums of power and thus prompt local Badr and Fadillah militia attacks?
All good but as yet unaswerable questions. Worse yet, Iraqi forces appear to have been inexplicably unprepared for an uprising by Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, and American forces are being forced to take the lead in attempting to contain the violence:
U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.
Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army's AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.
The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets. The Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite rival of Maliki, appeared to have taken the brunt of the attacks; fighting spread to many southern cities and parts of Baghdad.
And so we inch ever closer to a de jure end to the cease-fire as well as a de facto one. Officials admit to being confused and in the dark about the operation in Basra:
Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.
Perhaps they can consult Marc Lynch's handy "five theories" post.
Rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone continue as well:
The 5-square-mile Green Zone in central Baghdad is again a prime target as American and British diplomats, Iraqi politicians, contractors and others struggle to go about their business -- always aware that anytime they are outside the most fortified buildings there is a chance they will be injured or killed.
The danger has temporarily reshaped life. Green Zone traffic is minimal, few people venture out on the streets and already high security precautions have been boosted. Many diplomats and others prefer to sleep on cots in the stone and marble grandeur of Saddam Hussein's former palace that now holds U.S. Embassy offices.
A State Department memo Thursday instructed all embassy staff not to leave reinforced structures within the Green Zone. If staff members must venture outside, they are required to wear helmets, body armor and protective eyewear, it said. It strongly advised them to sleep in blast-resistant locations instead of the customary two people to a trailer on embassy grounds.
The U.S. military knows where the firing is from: mainly Shiite districts in eastern Baghdad. The challenge is how to stop them. The attacks come from deep inside residential neighborhoods, making it difficult to counterattack without risking widespread civilian casualties. Also, the rockets and mortars are fired from mobile launchers, meaning militants can quickly leave a launch area before soldiers can respond.
The only thing that has prevented such attacks is the willingness of most Mahdi Army fighters to obey the cease-fire. That willingness now appears to be at an end.
UPDATE: American aircraft are now supporting Iraqi forces in Basra with airstrikes. Yesterday President Bush stated that "normalcy is returning back to Iraq." He's right, but not in the way he intended.
UPDATE II: Maliki has now extended the deadline for Mahdi Army fighters to lay down their weapons to April 8th, and is offering them cash to do so. I suppose this gives Maliki a little more time to fight to the end, though I'm going to speculate that the odds of the Iraqi forces ousting the Mahdi Army from Basra by the 8th are about the same as they are of them being ousted by tomorrow.
UPDATE III: You will probably not be surprised to learn that the fighting may have some impact on plans to draw down American forces.
UPDATE IV: There are now reports the fighting in Baghdad between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi and American forces is spreading beyond Sadr City.
UPDATE V: Fester has a new theory on why Maliki has elected to undertake this offensive now:
Let us assume that this is a deliberate provocation exercise.
In this scenario the Iraqi Army attack into Basra's Mahdi neighborhoods does not go well, but it provokes a national Sadrist response which starts a strategic countdown clock. This count down clock includes increased Sadrist/JAM actions against Iraqi government and US Forces such as rocket/mortar attacks on the Green Zone, and attacks against the oil export infrastructure. It includes concerns over US logistics lines as the combination of Basra shutting down and general insecurity in the Shi'ite bridge cities increases.
It puts MNF-I in a very tough position as MNF-I is justifiably paranoid about its supply lines and the new routes coming in from Jordan to Anbar and terminating near Baghdad are insufficient to adequately supply the entire force. The supply lines are much harder to hit today than they were in 2004 but they are still the weak point of the American presence. Additionally the level of fighting increases significantly so SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE.
And that something could be the deployment of American combat troops to Basra, as reports indicate that Marines may be sent to Southern Iraq. The British could provide logistic base security as the Marines bail out the Iraqi Army and take over patrolling activities in Basra. And unless the live and let live arrangment that minimized conflict in Sadr City is quickly put into place, the Marines and the Sadrists will be knocking each others heads in. There will be a strong temptation on the Sadrists fighters to horizontally escalate and raise the level of their activities and attacks in other southern cities. This will be a good test to see how much control Sadr and other senior leadership really have over JAM activities or if they just provide strategic guidance.
If there is horizontal escalation of fighting to other southern cities, two things will happen. The first is that implicit working relationship that MNF-I has been building with elements of the Sadrist movement is scuttled. The second is that the South is now too unstable to have free and fear elections due to those 'thugs' and that elections are suspended until peace breaks out (and coincidentally Sadr and his followers are either killed or de-legitimized. )
This is something a variation of the "destroy a weak Sadr" theory. It's more of the reverse actually..."weaken the strong Sadr until we can destroy him" or something like that. Of course, this is all highly speculative, and complicated theories to explain political action often rely on the ability of the actors to accurately gauge their own interests, strengths and weaknesses (and relying on such is never wise.) Still, it's not as if anybody over here really knows why Maliki launched the offensive, so any reasonable explanation should at least be considered. The simplest and most compelling explanation remains that the other dominant Shiite parties in Iraq-SIIC and Dawa-wanted to reduce or destroy Sadr's influence ahead of provincial elections later this year, but badly miscalculated as to the strength of the Mahdi Army in Basra. But then again, it's possible that each of the actors behind this offensive has their own unique motive that cannot be discerned at this distance, and that an element of all of these theories is at work.
UPDATE VI: One more theory about what's going on in Iraq. According to a report on NPR (I can't find a link for the report yet so I'll update later) American officials in Baghdad are saying that Maliki launched the offensive to demonstrate his ability to bring control over the country in advance of the testimony by Ambassador Crocker before Congress on April 11th. This is possibly the least plausible theory in my mind, but there you go. And if that was the purpose of the offensive, I would say Maliki is thus far doing a poor job of meeting his goal.