Although he has relied on the Sadrists for political support in the past (he depended on their support to become prime minister in the first place), it seems that al-Maliki is willing to risk their support in the future in order to appease al-Hakim and the Bush administration. The central government's escalation in Basra comes at a strange time since al-Sadr recently renewed a 6-month ceasefire in which he called for his followers to not engage in fighting or violence. These two ceasefires are seen by many informed analysts to be one of the main reasons for the success of the so-called U.S. "surge" heralded by Republican Presidential nominee John McCain. The other main reason was the alienation of large parts of the Iraqi Sunni Arab communities by foreign militant groups.Al-Sadr supporters rally in the Shi'i holy city of Najaf to protest the government offensive in Basra. Government and SIIC forces are reportedly facing tough resistance from Mahdi Army fighters. SIIC officials in Basra are said to have fled several days ago to avoid reprisals from the al-Sadr's supporters. Al-Maliki maintains that the current offensive is aimed at "militias" in Basra. However, the only paramilitary organization which seems to have come under attack is the Mahdi Army, though the Badr Corps and Fadhila Party militia are also present in the city.
Mosques controlled or loyal to al-Sadr serve as rallying points for his supporters. Muqtada draws a significant base of his support from the Shi'i Arab lower classes and youth throughout the Sadr City area of Baghdad and in cities in southern Iraq such as Basra and Kufa. He comes from an illustrious family which included his father, Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and his uncle, Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Sadiq al-Sadr and Muqtada's two older brothers were murdered by Ba'thist agents in 1999. Baqir al-Sadr was tortured and executed with his sister, Bint al-Huda, in 1980.
Ironically, the SIIC, formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has the closest political and economic ties to Iran, despite U.S. rightwing and government nonsense about the Sadrists being Iranian agents. The SIIC was even founded in Iran (by Iraqi Arab exiles) with the support of then Iranian "supreme leader" Ayatullah Sayyid Ruhullah Khumayni. The Badr Corps was trained and for a time led by officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, with which the SIIC still probably maintains a close relationship. The Badr Corps fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and was based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Its fighters also participated, belatedly, in the 1991 uprising called for by U.S. President George Bush I, who then stood idly by as hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shi'i Arabs were slaughtered by Saddam's security forces.
SIIC chief 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim [right] meets with Iranian supreme leader Sayyid 'Ali Khamenei in Tehran.
The following interview with a Mahdi Army commander in the British newspaper the Guardian seems to confirm my original suspicions.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (March 28, 2008)
A senior commander in the Mahdi army said today the militia was fighting a battle for survival in Basra against a rival Shia faction seeking to obliterate it ahead of September elections. Fighting broke out in Basra on Tuesday when Iraqi government forces launched an offensive against Shia militia in the city. Overnight, US jets carried out air strikes in support of Iraqi forces in at least two locations.
Shiek Ali al-Sauidi, a prominent member of the Moqtada al-Sadr-led movement in Basra, said his men were being targeted not by the Iraqi government but by government militias loyal to the rival Supreme Islamic Council faction.
"They are a executing a very well drawn plan. They are trying to exterminate the Sadrists and cut and isolate the movement before the September local elections," he said in a telephone interview with the Guardian.
"The Sadrists are the only Shia resistance movement against the occupiers and we have wide popularity. We are going through a battle of existence we will fight to the end. We either survive this or we are finished."
The fighting has spread to Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, claiming the lives of at least 200 people since Tuesday. In the capital, a US helicopter fired a missile into the Sadr City district, while rocket and mortar attacks killed two guards outside the Iraqi vice president's office, inside the Green Zone. Reuters reported that in Nassiriya, Mahdi army fighters loyal to Sadr had taken over the city centre.
Sauidi said the Mahdi army was well equipped for the fight ahead. "We have captured lots of their vehicles, machine guns and mortars. We have new RPGs we got from their supply trucks. Our fighters know how to use the side streets as their battle space."
As fighting between the Shia Mahdi army and Shia Iraqi soldiers continued, witnesses described the scenes in Basra.
A resident of the poor neighbourhood of Hayaniya said: "The situation is very difficult in Basra, all the side streets are controlled by the Mahdi army. Even if the army has lots of tanks, the Mahdi fighters are controlling the streets. The fighters are driving in captured Iraqi Humvees and waving new guns."
Said Abu Saleh, 30, said: "Yesterday we were in the street and saw a black car coming. They stopped and two men opened the trunk. They dragged out an Iraqi soldier and threw him in the street and they drove away. He was a young soldier dressed in a military uniform, he had a bullet hole in his head and there was blood on his face. Even his boots were covered with blood. We found his ID card, his name was Ahmad Raad el Helfy. We went through his mobile phone and found a number marked 'mum', we dialed and an old women answered. I told her that her son had died and that she was a mother of martyr she started screaming and wailing."
Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, today extended his deadline for Shia militants to hand over their weapons by more than a week and offered cash to those who complied. "All those who have heavy and intermediate weapons are to deliver them to security sites and they will be rewarded financially. This will start from March 28 to April 8," he said.
Sadr, who helped Maliki to power after an election in 2005 but later broke away from him, has called for talks with the government. Maliki has vowed to battle what he calls criminal gangs in Basra "to the end".
The fighting is a test of Maliki's ability to prove Iraqi forces can stand on their own and allow US and UK forces to withdraw. British combat troops – who last year handed over responsibility for security in Basra province to Iraqis – have remained in their base at Basra airport during the upsurge in violence.