IRAQ: Sadr and America
In Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's office in Sadr City on Monday, Sheik Salman Freiji, dressed in a gray tunic, a white turban and black robes, sketched out the Sadrists' view of last week's fighting, which the organization saw as a defeat of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government. In a charitable assessment, Sadr's militia had fought the U.S.-trained Iraqi army and police to a standstill. Others would argue they had bested the Iraqi forces. The outcome raised serious questions about the capabilities and motivations of Iraq's security forces, which have long struggled with intimidation or even links to various political parties, including Sadr's.
It also left the United States once more painted as the villain by the Sadrists although the offensive is widely thought to have been the brainchild of Maliki and his inner circle of advisors. The Sadrists made clear that this latest chapter would be used against the U.S. forces in Iraq.
"America is looking for a man who would take over from the occupation forces to target the Iraqi people, and now Maliki has achieved this ambition," Freiji said in a soft voice. "Maliki has somehow started to execute the American project and the Iraqi people considers Maliki a tool in the hands of the Americans."
He warned that the Americans wanted to corrupt Iraqi society and had tried to provoke a sectarian war and were now trying to provoke a civil war among the Shiites. "They tried to split Sunnis from Shia. Now that has failed, they are trying to split the Shia," the cleric added. Freiji accused Maliki and the Americans of sharing the same goal: "to kill the Iraqi people."
Freiji said the Sadrists wanted a strong Iraq while its enemies in the government -- notably its chief rival the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest Shiite party in Maliki's ruling coalition -- wanted a loose federation of provinces or regions. "We are against federalism. We are against the division of Iraq but certain political leaders you've met are working to divide Iraq."
In the southern port of Basra, residents were angry over the destruction. Most people said the offensive had not changed anything regarding the wanton criminality in Basra. Very few Iraqi army units were deployed while the Mahdi Army fighters once more faded into the woodwork -- just one of several militias active in the city, including some affiliated with parties in the national government that have been implicated in oil smuggling and corruption at the ports.
Qassim Abdul-Hussein Al-Khalidi, 43, an employee in a private company and a resident of Kut Al-Hajaj central Basra, said: "What happened is something that has been planned for before, that is to kill Iraqis with Iraqi hands. It's true that Basra wasn't safe but the question is, is it now more secure? Anyhow, what made me sad is that I had a friend called Khadim Ahbayni who has been killed three days ago at his house in Hayniya. He did nothing to deserve this."
Um Abbas, 63, said: "We faced difficult days. The war, regrettably, between brothers, it didn't have winners. We all lost ... Hopefully no such events will happen again."
— Ned Parker in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Basra
Photo: A child is hospitalized in Sadr City after being hit by shrapnel during the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military. Credit: Ned Parker / Los Angeles Times