Iraq’s Prime Minister was staring into the abyss today after his operation to crush militia strongholds in Basra stalled, members of his own security forces defected and district after district of his own capital fell to Shia militia gunmen.
With the threat of a civil war looming in the south, Nouri al-Maliki’s police chief in Basra narrowly escaped assassination in the crucial port city, while in Baghdad, the spokesman for the Iraqi side of the US military surge was kidnapped by gunmen and his house burnt to the ground.
Saboteurs also blew up one of Iraq’s two main oil pipelines from Basra, cutting at least a third of the exports from the city which provides 80 per cent of government revenue, a clear sign that the militias — who siphon significant sums off the oil smuggling trade — would not stop at mere insurrection.
In Baghdad, thick black smoke hung over the city centre tonight and gunfire echoed across the city.
The most secure area of the capital, Karrada, was placed under curfew amid fears the Mahdi Army of Hojetoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr could launch an assault on the residence of Abdelaziz al-Hakim, the head of a powerful rival Shia governing party.
While the Mahdi Army has not officially renounced its six-month ceasefire, which has been a key component in the recent security gains, on the ground its fighters were chasing police and soldiers from their positions across Baghdad.
Rockets from Sadr City slammed into the governmental Green Zone compound in the city centre, killing one person and wounding several more.
Mr al-Maliki has gambled everything on the success of Operation Saulat al-Fursan, or Charge of the Knights, to sweep illegal militias out of Basra.
It has targeted neighbourhoods where the Mahdi Army dominates, prompting intense fighting with mortars, rocket-grenades and machineguns in the narrow, fetid alleyways of Basra.
In Baghdad, the Mahdi Army took over neighbourhood after neighbourhood, some amid heavy fighting, others without firing a shot.
In New Baghdad, militiamen simply ordered the police to leave their checkpoints: the officers complied en masse and the guerrillas stepped out of the shadows to take over their checkpoints.
In Jihad, a mixed Sunni and Shia area of west Baghdad that had been one of the worst battlefields of Iraq’s dirty sectarian war in 2006, Mahdi units moved in and residents started moving out to avoid the lethal crossfire that erupted.
One witness saw Iraqi Shia policemen rip off their uniform shirts and run for shelter with local Sunni neighbourhood patrols, most of them made up of former insurgents wooed by the US military into fighting al-Qaeda.
In Baghdad, thousands of people marched in demonstrations in Shia areas demanding an end to the Basra operation, burning effigies of Mr al-Maliki, whom they branded a new dictator, and carrying coffins with his image on it.
From his field headquarters inside Basra city, the Prime Minister vowed to press on with his attack, which he said was not targeting the Mahdi Army in particular but all lawless gangs. “We have come to Basra at the invitation of the civilians to do our national duty and protect them from the gangs who have terrified them and stolen the national wealth,” he said. “We promise to face the criminals and gunmen and we will never back off from our promise.”
Supporters of Hojetoleslam al-Sadr, the rebellious cleric who formed the sprawling, 60,000-strong militia five years ago, have accused the Prime Minister of trying to wipe out the powerful Sadrists as a political force before provincial elections in October.
Residents of Basra complained that water and electricity had been turned off in the three main areas besieged by the Iraqi Army, which has an entire division deployed for the battle. They also said that they were running low on food an unable to evacuate their wounded. Estimates of the death toll in Basra reached as high as 200, with hundreds more wounded.
“The battle is not easy without coalition support,” lamented one Basra resident, who had worked as a translator for the British forces. “The police in Basra are useless and helping the Mahdi Army. The militia are hiding among the civilians. This country will never be safe, I want to leave for ever. I don’t know how to get out of this hell.”
One man was shot in the leg while trying to fix the rooftop water tank on his house but feared he would be taken for a militiaman if he tried to reach a hospital. Officials said that more than 200 militiamen had surrendered after the Government issued a three-day deadline to give themselves up.
While residents in Basra said that the army appeared to be making little headway against the militia bastions, a British Army spokesman based at nearby Basra airport said progress was being made.
“The Iraqi Army are rebalancing across the city, consolidating their positions, resupplying and preparing for future operations,” said Major Tom Holloway. “They made considerable progress, although not total progress by any stretch of the imagination.”
With fighting flaring across the Shia south, the police chief of Kut — where Mahdi fighters had seized large parts of the town, 110 miles southeast of Baghdad — said his men had killed 40 militiamen while losing four officers.
“The security forces launched an operation at around midnight to take back areas under the control of Shiite gunmen,” Abdul Hanin al-Amara said.
While US and British military officials have been at pains to distance themselves from the push against the deadly militias, President Bush praised the high-risk strategy of tackling militias that a politically weak Mr al-Maliki had been forced to court in the past.
“Prime Minister Maliki’s bold decision, and it was a bold decision, to go after the illegal groups in Basra shows his leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an even-handed manner,” Mr Bush said. “It also shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge.”
If the Iraqi forces fail to stamp out the powerful militias, however, and Iraq sinks into a new bout of in-fighting, Mr Bush’s troops and British forces may be forced to weigh in, sparking a new round of blood-letting ahead of US elections and scuttling British plans for an early withdrawal from Iraq.