U.S.-led forces are likely to launch a limited New Year offensive against Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, blamed for sectarian death squad killings, senior Iraqi officials say.
The Pentagon, in a report last month, described Mehdi Army militias as the biggest threat to Iraq’s security and diplomats say Washington is impatient to confront them.
Several officials in the Shi’ite political parties that dominate Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s unity government also say they are losing patience with Sadr’s supporters and predict more raids like last week’s joint U.S.-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 Shi’ite official told Reuters. “The ground is full of surprises but we think around Jan. 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.”
Sadr’s supporters twice launched armed uprisings against the U.S. occupation in 2004 but have since formally joined the U.S.-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 U.S. forces’ U.N. mandate a month ago.
But Maliki’s fragile authority among his fellow Shi’ite’s has been bolstered by Saturday’s hanging of Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-led administration oppressed the Shi’ite majority.
While he negotiates to end a boycott of the cabinet by moderates in Sadr’s movement, other Shi’ite leaders are pushing for a crackdown on Sadr militants.
“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, Shi’ite Islamist Iran.
Impressions among Sunnis of being victims of triumphal Shi’ite militias 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 militias 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 U.S. 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 al Rubaie told Reuters.
Rubaie accused U.S. 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 militant 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.”
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald)