BAGHDAD, Iraq—Fighting between anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militias and U.S. and British forces intensified on the eve of talks between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and an Iranian envoy about security in Iraq.
The intense fighting on Saturday and Sunday, both in Sadr's Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City and Basra, came as large-scale U.S. naval maneuvers continued in the Persian Gulf. According to two U.S. officials in Washington, who asked not to be identified because they're not authorized to talk about Iraq policy, the ground combat and naval exercises are intended, at least in part, to demonstrate that America still has the muscle and the will to confront Iran.
The U.S. military has said that it's going after secret cells that are smuggling into Iraq weapons from Iran and sending militiamen to Iran for training. According to Sadrists, Coalition Forces are trying to provoke them into confrontations that their leader wants to avoid.
Sectarian violence soared in Baghdad on Sunday, despite the presence of virtually all of the more than 28,000 U.S. troops called up for the U.S. surge meant to calm the capital. At least 44 unidentified bodies turned up, the highest number since the initiative began.
Iraqi politicians worry that the intensified combat could lead to a full-scale confrontation between Coalition Forces and the Mahdi Army.
"It's worrying for us," said Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite legislator from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party. "We don't want to open an all out war between the Multi-National Forces and the Sadrists. That is opening a new front."
"We're not trying to draw anyone out into a conflict," said Lt. Col. Chris Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. "We're trying to protect the citizens of Iraq by removing illegal weapons and removing illegal explosives. If we could do that peacefully with no conflict that's how we would do it."
On Saturday four militants were killed and one was detained as U.S. forces fought their way out of a nine-car ambush in Sadr City, a military statement said. The Americans called in air support to hit the vehicles, which Sadrists and Iraqi police later said were merely waiting for gas at a nearby station.
In Basra, British forces killed four militia members on Saturday following a Mahdi Army attack on the British and Iraqi headquarters there, according to the British military. On Sunday they killed three more gunmen and detained four.
The U.S. military said its Sadr City operations were follow-ons to the apprehension in March of Qais al-Khazali, once a top Sadr aide.
Khazali lead a cell that had split from the Mahdi Army and was being directly funded by Iran, Coalition spokesman Maj. General William Caldwell told McClatchy Newspapers. Khazali also was smuggling weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds force and training his militia in Iran.
Sadr called an emergency meeting Sunday after the battles in Sadr City and Basra, said Salah al-Obaidi, a senior aide to the cleric. The focus was on the continued U.S. presence in Iraq, which Sadr wants to end immediately.
"The occupation forces along with some local powers are trying to pressure us to cause chaos all over the country to give the occupation forces an excuse to stay in Iraq," Obaidi said.
Joost Hiltermann, an expert on Iraq at the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan, said the recent events may lead to an all out confrontation between the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces.
So far Sadr has led Iraq's anti-American rhetoric while asking his followers to practice restraint.
"Sooner or later the pressure is going to mount so much that Sadr's going to have to confront the Americans, which will be great for his standing even though he'll lose many people," Hiltermann said.
"The current dynamic points to increasing confrontation, in part because al-Qaida has taken advantage of the Baghdad Security Plan," he added.
Sadr's return to Iraq on Friday after weeks of silence reportedly spent in Iran, came amid reports of his group's splintering. Before the security plan began he issued orders for his followers not to fight U.S. forces and to lay low. But in his absence al-Qaida attacks on Shiite neighborhoods rose and some of his followers are itching for revenge.
"The Americans are always trying to draw us to a fight to make the security plan fail and blame the Sadrists," said Rasem Al-Marwani, the supreme cultural commission adviser in the Sadr office. "Our policy will change if there are violations and threats against innocent people. For now we will use peaceful resistance."
The two U.S. officials in Washington said the offensive against Iranian funded elements in Iraqi militias and the naval exercises are intended to dispel any notion that the political, military, foreign policy and financial strains caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have paralyzed the United States.
"If the Iranians were to become more aggressive on any front, including Iraq, Afghanistan or the nuclear one because they think we no longer can respond, that would be a major misjudgment on their part," said one of the officials, who plays a role in U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf.
Nevertheless, both officials conceded that the U.S. has "limited" leverage in the talks with Iran, especially as it becomes clear that the indefinite deployment of more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is politically, militarily and financially untenable. In addition, one of the officials said, British troops probably will leave southern Iraq, where Iranian influence is strong, within a few months after Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves office.
"It's hard to argue that time is on our side," one of the officials conceded. "And it's foolish to think the Iranians don't know that. But it would be bad for them if they overplayed their hand."
The U.S., however, has limited options to respond to Iranian escalation on any front. A direct attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could fuel unrest in the region, trigger terrorist counterattacks and send high oil prices into the stratosphere. Fighting a two-front war in Iraq against Sunni Muslim insurgents and Iranian-backed Shiite militias could mean more American casualties, even greater strains on the Army and Marine Corps and their Guard and Reserve components, and more opposition at home and abroad to U.S. policy in Iraq.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Jenan Hussein and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report. Fadel reported from Baghdad and Walcott from Washington.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.