Iraqi Army losing ground to Mahdi Army in Basra, Baghdad? Update: Let's have a political solution, says Sadr

I’ve been waiting for some sort of corroboration before posting last night’s NYT story about the IA offensive against the Sadrists stalling in Basra. Here you go, from a paper that’s always been fairly evenhanded in its war reporting. If they’re to be believed, it’s not just Basra where the Mahdis are on the march:

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…

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…

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.

The city’s now under curfew. The Basra operations only started a few days ago so I’m guessing Petraeus is lying back to give the IA a chance to take care of business itself, as having to rescue them will be demoralizing to pretty much everyone except Harry Reid. How’s it going in Basra? Per the NYT, not so well:

A Basra newspaper editor who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals said most residents despised the Mahdi Army and welcomed the assault. But he said it was obvious that the central government had not consulted with local commanders in planning the assault, citing the inability of the armored vehicles to fit through city streets. But support for the assault already seems to be eroding in several neighborhoods, as militiamen retained control of their strongholds and residents were confined in their homes. “The Mahdi Army is still controlling most of these places,” the editor said. “The result is negative.”

Local residents said the southern sections of Basra, mostly poor and heavily populated, were still controlled by the Mahdi Army on Wednesday night…

Col. Abbas al-Tamimi, media officer for the 14th Iraqi Army Division operating in the city, said he expected the fighting to escalate. “The gunmen have heavier and more sophisticated weapons than we have,” he said.

I wonder where they got those very sophisticated weapons. A Basra resident who used to work for the Brits tells the Times of London, “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.” If Israel couldn’t destroy Hezbollah two years ago, I guess it stands to reason that the IA’s going to have trouble destroying the Iraqi equivalent. The X factor is that it’s not just the IA that the Sadrists have to contend with. The other militias in the city see this as an opportunity to crush them and take their share of the spoils, which explains why “neighborhoods controlled by rival political groups seemed to be giving government forces safe passage, as if they were helping them to strike at the Mahdi Army,” according to the NYT. With regular and irregular units against them, you’d think the JAM would be having a harder time. Not yet. Cross them fingers.

Via Danger Room, here’s a handy snapshot from Al Jazeera of all places of the various interests in conflict at the moment.

Update: The official word from Muqtada is that he opposes violence. Unofficially, who knows if he’s even calling the shots anymore.

Update: Andrew Cochran of the Counterterrorism Blog calls it a “budding disaster” for Maliki.

Update: CNN’s analysis here of the game Iran is playing with Sadr is shrewd. They’re trying to use him as a figurehead, but when he resists by purging the “rogue” members of the movement, the Iranians recruit them and send them back into the field under his banner. In all likelihood, Sadr’s just a puppet in all this and possibly an unwilling one. That explains why the ceasefire hasn’t been rescinded and yet you’re seeing fighting all over. He’s not the one giving orders.

“And now the most lethal attacks on U.S. forces, the most coordinated attacks on U.S. forces, the most daring attacks on U.S. forces in the country are committed by Iranian-backed breakaway elements of Muqtada’s militia faction.”

The violence in Basra — which has spread to Shiite areas throughout the country, including Baghdad — is a kind of fighting Americans are unaccustomed to seeing, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Sheppard, CNN’s senior military analyst. Video Watch the violence multiply »

“This is intra-Shia. This is not Sunni vs. Shia, this is not civil war, this is not sectarian violence, it’s intra-Shia politics for control of the government,” he said.