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Iraqi forces see victory in Basra

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Iraqi soldiers are standing proud in Basra one month after launching a surprise offensive to wipe out murderous gangs of Shia militants that had been allowed to flourish under Britain’s watch.

April 25  2008

Times online

Many of them say the operation has boosted their confidence, but the militiamen warn that the only reason the fledgling Iraqi army had any success was because they continue to observe a ceasefire order by the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Soldier Hassan Sha’an said the past four weeks has tested the training he received from British forces in conducting raids and pulling security for an important person. The 25-year-old is part of team charged with guarding the Iraqi commander of forces in Basra, Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji.

“When we conducted raids I remembered what we had been taught about covering our backs and looking out for our colleagues,” Mr Sha’an said.

“After the achievements of the Charge of the Knights operation I feel as a soldier more confident to go on raids and patrols or search for people.”

Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, launched the Basra offensive on March 25 after alerting US and British commanders at the last minute. The original plan that Lt-Gen Furaiji had drawn up anticipated the campaign to start in mid-July.

Encouragingly, the first wave of attacks caught the militants off-guard, but two days later they launched a counter offensive, prompting at least one entire Iraqi Army battalion of 1,400 men to flee.

Threats by Mr Maliki to disarm rang hollow and the mission appeared to be on the brink of failure before thousands of Iraqi re-enforcements backed by hundreds of American and British soldiers joined the fight at the start of April.

“They [the militiamen] collapsed,” said Lt-Gen Furaiji, claiming that the gunmen were a fraction of the 12,000-strong force that some had anticipated.

Rogue elements of the al-Mehdi Army militia, loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, are accused of being behind much of the violence and intimidation in Basra, where the population was forced to follow a set of strict religious codes or be punished.

The Iraqi commander said: “Those who fought are from special groups who received training in Iran.”

But the Basra leader of the Sadr movement, the cleric's political wing said the Government had launched a witch hunt for anyone linked to the Sadrists to ensure rival political parties and their militias gain power in Iraq’s second city.


“I expect to be arrested at any moment,” said Sheikh Ali al-Saedi, who was forced to move to the holy city of Najaf, north of Basra, after his office was taken over by the Iraqi security forces.

Hojatoleslam al-Sadr has threatened “open war” unless the Government stops targeting his militia. Lt-Gen Furaiji is unconcerned, saying: “What is he waiting for? Let him fight.”

Iraqi commanders insist that their operation is against anyone who defies the law and is not just targeting the Mehdi Army. It is unclear however to what extent the other militias in Basra have been disarmed. Ominous new graffiti on a wall in the city reads: “The people will retaliate from the new Ba’athists and the followers of the dirty Maliki.”

One thing is certain, for the first time in four years residents and tribesmen feel brave enough to turn against the militants. Many have handed in weapons in return for cash or point out where stockpiles of bombs and rockets are hidden.

In a new sweep that began yesterday, seven Iraqi battalions entered a large market area – one of three remaining Mehdi Army bastions in Basra – where they found four large hauls of munitions including 20 rockets of the type that were being fired at Britain’s military base at the airport on a near daily basis.
Tellingly, the rocket fire has all but stopped since March 25.

A number of roadside bombs, of the sort that killed a US marine earlier this week (the first US casualty in Basra since the invasion) were also uncovered at the market.

Looking around a makeshift, arms storage-house next to an old hotel, which is being used as the operational headquarters, I saw rooms filled with seized roadside bombs, AK47 rifles, rockets, mortar tubes and landmines.

Much of the bomb material is thought to have come from Iran, a charge that the Iranian Government has repeatedly rejected.

Lt-Gen Furaiji keeps a small collection of Iranian-made mortars in his office at the Shat al-Arab hotel, which sits on the bank of the Shat al-Arab waterway. He said: “Thanks to the Iranians for handing over all these weapons to us.”

Created by anita
Last modified 2008-04-29 05:43 AM

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