NICOLE COLSON reports on the aftermath of the Iraqi government’s offensive against Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Socialist Worker
SECURITY FORCES of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government may have carried out summary executions of members of rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, according to media revelations that have once again exposed the scale of brutality in “liberated” Iraq.
At the end of March, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a halt to the government’s assault on Mahdi fighters, following days of intense combat in which at least 500 people in Basra and in the Sadr City section of Baghdad are said to have been killed. The offensive was an attempt to crack down on the Mahdi Army and force it to disarm.
According to a report by National Public Radio, audiotape of police radio transmissions reveal what appears to be the execution of detained Shiite militia members. On the tape, intercepted from an Iraqi police radio channel in the city of Karbala, an Iraqi policeman reportedly asked his commander what to do with a wounded militia fighter.
“Do not bring him over, do not bring him over here,” a supervisor says on the tape. “As I told you before, kill him, do not make him reach here.” A policeman replies, “Clear sir, clear.”
According to NPR, the family of the militia member referred to in the transmissions, Aqueel al Hez-ali, said that he was later found dead with multiple bullet wounds in his head and torso.
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AT THE start of the assault on Sadr’s forces, George Bush praised the operation as proof that the U.S. has been able to shore up the strength of Iraqi government to the point that it can take on the militias. Calling Maliki’s move “a bold decision,” Bush added, “I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.”But accounts of the fighting indicate that government forces relied on support and firepower from the U.S. military.
“Two senior American military officers–a member of the Navy Seals and a Marine major general–were sent to Basra to help coordinate the Iraqi planning,” the New York Times reported. “Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were pressed into service as combat advisers, while air controllers were positioned to call in air strikes on behalf of beleaguered Iraqi units. American transport planes joined the Iraqis in ferrying supplies to Iraqi troops.”
According to NPR, in heavily Shiite East Baghdad, the defection rate more among Iraqi police forces during the fighting was 40 percent or more. One senior Iraqi official told the Times that more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers deserted during fighting. The desertions reportedly included more than 100 officers, among them the commander and deputy commander of an entire brigade.
In the midst of the assault, the U.S. stepped in, putting entire populations under siege and unleashing a brutal air barrage. Britain also contributed air power to the Iraqi government offensive in Basra.
Many residents in Basra were trapped inside their homes, without food, electricity, water or medical care. Humanitarian aid was halted due to security concerns.
One resident, Nur Muhammad, stood by helplessly as her 4-month-old son fell ill with a fever and later died. The family wasn’t able to leave their home because of the fighting.
Student Assad Hassan Alawi told Britain’s Guardian, “My uncle and cousin were killed in an air strike in Sadr City…The U.S. says it is just attacking militants, so how can they explain how two innocent people, who were hard workers and far from politics and social issues, are now dead?
“They left women and children without anyone to bring them food. Maybe they are going to be the next victims–not from an air strike, but from hunger caused by the unfair Iraq invasion.”
Despite the U.S. attacks, according to one New York Times reporter who got into Basra during the fighting, the Mahdi Army remained in control during and after the siege. “There was nowhere the Mahdi either did not control or could not strike at will,” the reporter wrote.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker later claimes to reporters that the siege by the Maliki government wasn’t what the U.S. expected. “I had the understanding that this was going to be an effort to get down, show they were serious with additional forces, put the squeeze on, develop a full picture of conditions and then act accordingly,” Crocker said. “I was not expecting, frankly, a major battle from Day One.”
Despite a truce, brokered largely on Sadr’s terms with the help of the Iranian government, the U.S. air strikes continued as Socialist Worker went to press. On April 3, six people were killed and 15 wounded when U.S. forces engaged Shia militants in Hilla.
“They were innocent people who worked on transporting the wounded from a place that had been targeted by U.S.-led forces,” one resident told Democracy Now! “At the time they were taking the wounded to the hospital, the U.S.-led forces bombed the area, killing a number of our brothers, bodyguards in Babil health office, soldiers and policemen in Babil.”
Last weekend, fighting broke out in the Sadr City section of Baghdad, where U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to crack down on militants firing rockets into the heavily fortified Green Zone. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and 17 wounded in the Green Zone, and at least 20 Iraqis were killed, mainly in Sadr City.
The government assault came in spite of a seven-month freeze on armed operations observed by the Mahdi Army. As one Iraqi government official told the Los Angeles Times, “We are now locked in a battle. I think this will be a hot summer in Iraq.”
Though the U.S. media continue to talk about the success of the “surge” in Iraq, the latest fiasco for the occupation proves just how shaky Iraq’s central government remains.
As Robert Dreyfuss commented in the Nation, Maliki “staked his prestige on the offensive. If indeed it has failed, Maliki has lost face. That the ceasefire ending the fighting was worked out in Qom, Iran, and mediated by Tehran, is doubly embarrassing for him.
“But it’s far worse for the United States. President Bush strongly backed Maliki since the Battle of Basra started. According to Steve Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, the decision to act in Basra was taken jointly between Washington and Baghdad…
“Adding to Bush’s utter humiliation, the Iranian-negotiated truce was mediated by the commander of the so-called Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani…The Quds Force, you will recall, was only last year designated as a ‘terrorist’ entity by the U.S. government.
“So President Bush’s ‘defining moment’ is this: the head of an Iranian ‘terrorist’ force has brokered a deal between the two leading Shiite parties in Iraq.”