US in push against Mehdi Army

BAGHDAD — US-led forces are likely to launch a limited new year offensive against Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army, blamed for sectarian death squad killings, senior Iraqi officials say.

The Pentagon, in a report last month, described Mehdi Army as the biggest threat to Iraq’s security and diplomats say Washington is impatient to confront them.

Several officials in the Shiite political parties that dominate Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s unity government also say they are losing patience with Sadr’s supporters and predict more raids like last week’s joint US-Iraqi operation in which a senior Sadr aide was killed.

“There will be limited and targeted operations against members of the Mehdi Army,” a senior Shiite official told Reuters. “The ground is full of surprises but we think around January 5 there will be some operations. I can say no more.” British forces in the southern oil province of Basra have also been conducting major raids against groups they describe as “rogue Mehdi Army”, some entrenched in Iraqi police units.

Last week, British troops blew up the headquarters of Basra’s Major Crimes Unit and said they freed tortured prisoners.

“The Americans want a war with the Mehdi Army,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad, who is not American or British.

“They want to get rid of the militia and it seems they will succeed in getting one.”

Maliki bolstered

Sadr’s supporters twice launched armed uprisings against the US occupation in 2004 but have since formally joined the US-sponsored political process.

A handful of Sadr’s ministers suspended their participation in Maliki’s government and his 30 members of parliament have also been staying away since Maliki approved a renewal of the US forces’ UN mandate a month ago.

But Maliki’s fragile authority among his fellow Shiite’s has been bolstered by Saturday’s hanging of Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-led administration oppressed the Shiite majority.

While he negotiates to end a boycott of the Cabinet by moderates in Sadr’s movement, other Shiite leaders are pushing for a crackdown on Sadr men.

“They are jeopardising all our efforts and achievements,” said a senior official from another group in the main United Alliance bloc of which Sadr’s group is a key part.

Hundreds of Iraqis are being killed every week and hundreds of thousands have fled. Many Sunnis accuse Sadr’s movement of being behind many death squad killings, a charge Sadr himself denies. They also accuse them of being controlled by Washington’s enemies in neighbouring, Shiite Islamist Iran.

Impressions among Sunnis of being victims of triumphal Shiite factions have been reinforced by video of Saddam’s hanging, in which official observers chanted “Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!” and taunted the former leader on the gallows.

Maliki has repeatedly said since taking office eight months ago that he will disband all factions but has asked for patience and insists the main threat is from Sunni insurgents.

Several political sources said Maliki, from the Dawa Party and a compromise choice as premier who owed his appointment to support from the populist Sadr, was trying to give political negotiations with Sadr a last chance before any crackdown.

Last month, a government delegation to Najaf failed to persuade the cleric to end his boycott, however, and Maliki has said he still plans a Cabinet reshuffle that government officials say could involve removing some Sadrist ministers.

The head of the Sadrists bloc in the parliament said the group was working with members in the Alliance on a proposal to reschedule the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops which then will end their boycott of the parliament.

“In response to our demands we are working with others in the alliance on a proposal for the timetable of withdrawal. This will help ending the boycott,” Nassar Rubaie told Reuters.

Rubaie accused US commanders of trying to lure Sadr into a direct confrontation but said that he would not be provoked.

But other members of the alliance said Sadr had no choice but more clearly to disown Mehdi Army commanders. He has done so more than once, and even arrested some, but critics remain unconvinced that Sadr is genuine in those efforts: “These people will only respond to force and this is what they will get,” the senior alliance official said. “A decisive battle is not agreed yet but limited operations just began.”

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