Atul Aneja

Mahdi Army establishes control over main road to Basra

Clashes linked to October provincial elections

Sadr loyalists launch civil disobedience actions

DUBAI: While the oil city of Basra remains the epicentre, fighting in Iraq has spread to other towns in the south as well as the capital Baghdad.

Iraqi government forces are locked in battle with the Mahdi Army — a well-armed militia loyal to the Shia cleric, Moqtada Al-Sadr.

Analysts point out that these clashes are linked to the Iraqi provincial elections that are due in October. Unless the Sadirists are weakened, they are expected to emerge as an even stronger political force in these polls. The Sadr movement already has 30 lawmakers in the current Parliament.

Government forces, backed by the Americans, are encountering stiff resistance from the Mahdi Army. In Basra, heavy fighting has been reported from the downtown area as well as northern districts of the city, the Iraqi daily in Arabic, Al-Zaman reported. Three Iraqi army brigades, comprising 15,000 troops, have been sent from Baghdad for the operation. However, the Mahdi Army has now apparently established control over the main road from the town of Amara to Basra, allowing it to cut off military supplies for the government troops which pass through this way. Fearing an attack from the Mahdi Army, members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Da’wa Party have fled their headquarters in the city. The ISCI is led by the Shia cleric Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, while Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki heads Da’wa.

The Americans have praised Mr. Al-Maliki for staying in Basra to personally supervise the operation.

Fighting has also spread to Sadr City in Baghdad. Government forces have surrounded the outer parameter of this area. However, Mahdi Army fighters are patrolling the streets inside. Some Sadr loyalists have launched civil disobedience actions close to the Sadr City. In a statement, Mr. Al Sadr said: “We call on all Iraqis to show restraint, throughout Iraq, as a first step. If the government does not respect the demands of the masses, then the second step will be disobedience in Baghdad and the rest of the provinces.”

Observers say that in case there is no let-up in the fighting, it could result in widespread violence. This could challenge U.S. claims that the “surge” in its troops that had been ordered earlier has been successful in establishing relative calm.