The conflict between the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi government, backed by the US, is escalating rapidly as the American military claimed it killed 38 Shia insurgents in the latest fighting.
American Abram tanks repelled attacks on two checkpoints near the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City in east Baghdad, killing 22 Mehdi Army militiamen who attacked under the cover of a sand storm that kept US attack helicopters grounded. The Green Zone, home to the US embassy and the Iraqi government, is being hit by mortar rounds and rockets every day.
The shape of the war in Iraq is changing radically as US forces are increasingly drawn into fighting the Shia community, as opposed to the Sunni, who supported the insurgency against the American occupation over the last five years.
The Mehdi Army fighters show that they are prepared to take heavy losses in street fighting against US soldiers who are far better armed and trained. Mr Sadr has threatened to end his ceasefire, originally declared at the end of August and renewed in February, but this has not stopped increasingly violent clashes between the Mehdi Army and its American and Iraqi opponents.
In the fighting since the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki unexpectedly launched an offensive targeting the Sadrists in Basra on 25 March, the Iraqi army and police have hitherto been unable to hold their own against the Mehdi Army without American help.
It is possible that Mr Maliki’s most important Shia ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), has encouraged the prime minister to go on the offensive with the purpose of drawing the Americans into a battle with the Sadrists. ISCI has a strong motive for seeking to eliminate or weaken its Sadrist rivals now, six months before the provincial elections in which the Sadrists are expected to poll well and ISCI badly.
The army is not alone in taking part in the factional fighting between ISCI and the Sadrists. The Mehdi army commander in the Hakimkiya neighbourhood of central Basra, Ali Ghalib, was assassinated yesterday by a gunman on a motorcycle. .
Mr Sadr, who draws his support overwhelmingly from the Shia poor, is apparently trying to wrong foot the government by pillorying them as the aggressors and pawns of the Americans. There are signs that this tactic is having some success with 40 members of the Iraqi parliament demonstrating in Sadr City for an end to the fighting.
Mr Mallki is demanding that the Sadrists surrender their heavy weapons, stop fighting the security services and threatening government officials, and hand over outlaws wanted by the government. It may be that in seeking a confrontation with Mr Sadr now he is exaggerating his own political and military strength.
In Sunni parts of central and northern Iraq a quite different battle is going on. This pits al Qa’ida in Iraq against the al-Sahwa Sunni militia, which is allied to the Americans, and also sees Sunni insurgents fighting the Americans. Al Qa’ida specialises in suicide attacks and a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up at an al-Sahwa checkpoint in Baghdad yesterday, killing one man and wounding four others.
In mixed areas of Baghdad like al-Mansur and the Yarmouk the Iraqi army is being repeatedly hit by guerrilla attacks which local Sunni blame on the Mehdi Army. An army colonel leaving the Samad restaurant in al-Mansur was killed along with three of his guards by a car bomb on Friday.
The US says that it intends to stop the Mehdi Army bombarding the Green Zone but will not try to take over Sadr City which has a population of two million people. It is using Apache helicopters and drones to locate the places from where rockets and mortars are being fired.
But the US reliance on air power to police Sadr is likely to cause great resentment because of the number of civilians being killed. US spokesmen invariably refer to these as ‘criminal’, ‘special units’ or ‘rogue elements’ but local hospitals confirm that many of the dead are women and children. Many civilians have also been killed by Mehdi Army mortars and rockets aimed at the Green Zone falling short.
In a sign of the deep divisions between Sunni and Shia several hundred students from a girls’ school near Saddam Hussein’s home village of Awja celebrated what would have been his 71st birthday by gathering at his mausoleum and chanting: “Bush, Bush you low life! Saddam’s blood is not cheap!” The children entered the building carrying a banner which read: “We will not forget you, Papa Saddam.”