WASHINGTON — The White House and Pentagon claimed partial credit for the Iraqi government's new military offensive in Baghdad and the port city of Basra, calling it a "byproduct of the success" of the U.S. troop surge that showed that Iraqi forces are capable of assaulting Shiite extremists.
Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, called the Iraqi-led operation in Basra "an indication of the increased maturation of this (central) government," and he praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for taking charge of the operation.
"What he (Maliki) has really done is take that matter into his hands," Hadley said.
The Pentagon said that Iraqi security forces are now capable of confronting their fundamental problems.
"They are a sovereign government. This is a decision they made, and they feel capable of fulfilling," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "So we are supportive of them taking greater accountability for their own security."
Although U.S. officials portrayed the offensive as an Iraqi initiative, the U.S. military was providing air cover for the Iraqi operations in Basra and Baghdad and ground troops in Baghdad. U.S. officers appear to have been closely involved in the planning.
The Bush administration has pushed the Iraqi government to take advantage of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad and Anbar province, which led to drops in violence there.
There was no sign from the ground, however, that the new offensive, which involves 15,000 Iraqi troops and police units, was succeeding.
It also remains to be seen whether rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr will maintain the cease-fire that he announced last August and renewed in February. Following the Iraqi government offensive, Sadr has authorized his Mahdi Army militia fighters to attack U.S. and Iraqi troops in self-defense.
The cease-fire was one reason behind the drop in violence that followed the surge of more U.S. troops to Iraq.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad told McClatchy that coalition forces didn't attempt to dissuade Maliki when he first proposed an operation against armed militias in Basra. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was encouraging that Maliki, a Shiite, was willing to move against other Shiite groups. But there's concern among U.S. military leaders that the fighting in Basra could erupt into a nationwide inter-Shiite conflict.
Morrell said that there are no signs that the security gains from the surge are in jeopardy so far. The rise in violence wasn't surprising, he added, because like their Sunni counterparts, Shiite extremist groups initially would react violently to any operation.
"It's a natural reaction to being cornered," Morrell said.
Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Wednesday to discuss U.S. plans in Iraq after five combat brigades leave this summer. Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, is expected to testify before Congress on April 8-9.
Officials have said that after the five brigades leave, military leaders will assess the situation before the U.S. considers any further withdrawals. Once the surge forces leave, roughly 140,000 troops will remain in Iraq.