03/25/2008 11:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NSN Iraq Daily Update 3/25/08


A cease-fire critical to the improved security situation in Iraq appeared to unravel in the strategic southern port city of Basra, where Shi'a cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army fought fierce gun battles with Iraqi security forces that are trying to bring the city under government control. The Iraqi government has undertaken an operation targeting six districts in central and northern Basra where the Mahdi Army militia of al-Sadr has a strong presence. The operation was launched after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, accompanied by his defense and interior ministers, arrived in the city on Monday vowing to re-impose his government's control over the city. Muqtada al Sadr has threatened a nationwide "civil revolt," calling on Iraqis to stage sit-ins if attacks by U.S. and Iraqi security forces continued. He also threatened a "third step," but said it was too early to announce what it would be. In Basra, many Shi'a groups are battling for power and the Mahdi Army is the most feared force. There are reports that violence has also broken out between Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. These are the two most powerful Shi'a factions in Iraq and they have been vying for control of Basra, Iraq's second city and gateway to the Gulf. Basra's oil fields hold 80 percent of Iraq's oil wealth and are the source of most government revenues. [Reuters, 3/25/08]

Simultaneously, al-Sadr's Mahdi Army began shutting down neighborhoods in west Baghdad, staged a protest with hundreds of supporters, and issued demands of the central government.
On Monday, the Sadrists all but shut down the neighborhoods they control--including Al-Baya and Al-Shuala-- on the west bank of Baghdad. Gunmen went to stores and ordered them to close as militiamen stood in the streets. Mosques used their loudspeakers to urge people to come forward and join the protest and fliers were distributed demanding the Iraqi government release detainees, stop targeting Sadrist members and apologize to the families and the tribal sheiks of the men. On Tuesday, hundreds of Iraqi Shi'a loyal to radical cleric al-Sadr marched through the streets of western Baghdad in protest. The freeze on offensive activity by Sadr's Mahdi Army has been a major factor behind the recent drop in violence in Iraq, and a lifting of the cease-fire would most likely incite armed conflict between the Mahdi army and the U.S., Iraqi security forces, and other Shi'a groups vying for power. A Mahdi Army spokesman said, "We will hold the Iraqi government responsible for any attack on demonstrators who are participating in their democratic choice. We also assure that there are no armed people enforcing any civilians to take part in the strike." The Sadrists also accuse the Shi'a-led government and the security forces of favoring their Shi'a rivals in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). [AFP, 3/25/08]

Wall Street Journal: Residents in two Shi'a-controlled Baghdad neighborhoods said armed militias have taken over rooms in several schools and stocked them with rockets, in a sign they could be gearing up for more attacks against the U.S.-backed government. The reports come a day after a deadly barrage of rocket attacks against the Iraqi government's heavily fortified seat of power on Sunday. Tensions in Baghdad have increased amid recent violence between two politically backed armed forces in the south, and after Sunday's attacks against the international Green Zone. [WSJ, 3/25/08]


In a closed-door meeting via video link with General David Petraeus and the US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, they urged Bush to put off a decision on any further troop reductions "for a month or two." Military officials then want conditions in Iraq to be reviewed once a month, instead of every six months as previously done, to determine how many more brigades, if any, can be pulled out before Bush leaves office, the New York Times said, citing senior officials. The military is currently withdrawing five combat brigades sent into Iraq early last year -- the so-called "surge" force -- to be completed by July. That will bring troop levels down from about 158,000 to 140,000. If Bush accepts the "pause," that means two or three more brigades at most could be withdrawn in 2008, leaving troop levels far above 100,000. It takes about 45 days to withdraw a combat brigade. [AFP, 3/25/08]


As the security situation in the capital improved, the military has moved battalions out of Baghdad toward more violent areas such as the northern city of Mosul and Iraq's northeastern Diyala province. But as the troop presence has shifted, the violence has increased. For the first time since January, a majority of U.S. troops were killed in Baghdad, not in outlying northern provinces. So far, this month, 27 soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Of those, 16, or 59%, died in Baghdad. In January, 25% of U.S. deaths happened in Baghdad, or 10 of 40. Civilian casualties in Baghdad are also on the rise, according to a McClatchy count. After a record low through November, when at least 76 people were killed and 306 were injured, the deaths began to rise. In December, it crept up to 88 people killed, in January 100 and in February 172. As of March 24, at least 149 people were killed and 448 were injured. [McClatchy, 3/24/08]