Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched a major combat operation in the southern city of Basra today against the Mahdi Army — which is led by anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr – and other Shiite militias.
Violence also erupted in three other Iraqi cities, including Baghdad where “[b]arrages of mortars and rockets pounded the fortified Green Zone area for the second time in three days” and rival Shiite militias exchanged gunfire in Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold.
But during today’s White House press breifing, press secretary Dana Perino tried to spin the recent hostilites in Iraq as a positive development for the “surge,” saying that having the ISF conduct military operations is “what critics have wanted to see”:
PERINO: This is an Iraqi led and Iraqi initiated operation. And this is what we’ve been wanting to see the Iraqis do is take on more responsibility. […]
The surge created new opportunities and in fact created many more Iraqi Security Forces. […]
So I would characterize it as a bold decision — precisely what the critics have asked to see in Iraq, more movement by the Iraqi Security Forces.
But according to reports, the current wave of violence is endangering a recently renewed ceasefire al-Sadr declared last August – which has been widely credited with helping to reduce violence throughout Iraq. Yesterday, al-Sadr called for a nationwide civil disobedience campaign “in response to what his followers say is an unwarranted crackdown” by the Iraqi government. Yet one Iraqi Member of Parliament and al-Sadr supporter said if the ISF “keep targeting us like this, we’ll know how to respond.”
There is no silver lining in the increased violence. Last week, Gen. David Petraeus said the military “progress in Iraq is fragile” and “tenuous.” Perhaps Perino should start listening to the commanders on the ground.
QUESTION: do you have any information or have you had a chance to talk to people now about the situation as it stands now with the Mahdi Army the calls for civil disobedience.
PERINO: You’re talking about the situation in Basra?
QUESTION: Yes in Basra.
PERINO: The president was briefed this morning by General Lute during his morning briefing. He was also briefed yesterday by Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker. This is an Iraqi led and Iraqi initiated operation. And this is what we’ve been wanting to see the Iraqis do is take on more responsibility. The Iraqi government has pledged even handed enforcement of the law. That is being borne out today.
The surge created new opportunities and in fact created many more Iraqi Security Forces. They are better able to maneuver and respond to crises they’re a little bit flexible, they’re certainly better trained and they’re dealing with terrorists and extremist networks throughout Iraq.
Basra is one example of that. As press reports note today, Prime Minister Maliki made a brave decision to go into a very difficult situation where you have terrorist and insurgents that have infested the area and he’s taken his forces down there and are working with them.
As to whether or not MNF-I is providing sort of air cover or something like that I’ll have to refer you to them because things are unfolding quite rapidly but that’s why we are there, to help just in case they need it.
I think the way we would characterized this is this was a bold decision by the Iraqis. Many of these militias are backed by the Iranians especially when it comes to the special group’s part of Sadr’s movement that are not following the guidance of Muktada al-Sadr and have continued to fight even during the cease fire
So I would characterize it as a bold decision — precisely what the critics have asked to see in Iraq, more movement by the Iraqi Security Forces. But obviously this is one of the first times when they’ve had such an entrenched battle and we’ll be there to support them if they need it.