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Pepe Escobar: The battle of Basra rages on

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Violence in Basra rages on

ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER (VOICEOVER): In Basra, Iraqi army troops and Madhi Army gunmen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr engaged in a firefight on Wednesday, the second day of heavy clashes. Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has given gunmen in the southern oil port city a three-day deadline to surrender their weapons and renounce armed conflict. Spiraling violence between warring factions vying for control of the center of the country’s vast oil industry, located near the Iranian border, have claimed numerous casualties.


SINGING GUNMEN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We are the heroes of Muqtada and the whole world knows us. Nouri can do nothing, Al-Mahdi Army is the safeguard.


According to the Associated Press, a US bomb attack in the Baghdad district of Sadr City claimed at least fifteen casualties and wounded 100 after two days of fighting between US-Iraqi forces and fighters loyal to al-Sadr. Speaking from Karbala, al-Sadr’s office director, Sheik al-Mohammadawi, had this to say.


SHEIK ABDUL-HADI AL-MOHAMMADAWI, DIRECTOR OF AL-SADR OFFICE IN KARBALA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Under the law, this ferocious attack has been launched against the Mahdi Army. And in a barbaric and savage way, human rights have been violated all over Iraq, from Baghdad, to Hillah, Kut, Diwaniyah, Karbala, and most recently the onslaught led by the prime minister in Basra. The prime minister thought that he was able to undermine the people’s will by putting the occupier’s agenda into force.


The Mahdi Army unleashed rockets and mortars against the US-protected Green Zone in central Baghdad on Wednesday for the third day this week, prompting this statement from US military spokesman Major General Kevin J. Bergner.


MAJ. GEN. KEVIN BERGNER, US MILITARY SPOKESMAN: Whether in Baghdad, or Basra, or other communities in Iraq, no one wants to see a return to the violence of a year ago. Iraqis that I speak with want to move forward and build on the security gains that have been achieved through enormous sacrifice. They do not want to go backwards.


In the midst of the escalating conflict, peaceful demonstrators loyal to al-Sadr protested in Karbala.


GEOFF MORRELL, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: This is a sign that the Iraqi security forces are now capable of confronting fundamentally their problems. They are a sovereign government; this is a decision they made and they feel capable of fulfilling. So we are supportive of them taking greater accountability for their own security.


To give us a clear picture of the situation, we go to Real News analyst, author of Globalistan and Red Zone Blues, as well as being a celebrated journalist covering Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan for over ten years, Pepe Escobar.

PEPE ESCOBAR, THE REAL NEWS ANALYST: Why the battle of Basra? And why now? The most important thing about the battle of Basra relates to the truce declared by Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army last summer. The truce still holds, but the truce applies basically to the official Mahdi Army. When you talk about Mahdi Army, there are at least three or four different Mahdi Army. There are splinter groups. This means commanders that do not report directly to Muqtada al-Sadr anymore. What’s happening with these three or four Mahdi Armies? They are being attacked by Iraqi government forces. Who are these forces? They basically are Badr Organization, which is the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq. This is part of the government, along with the Dawa party and the Kurdish parties, and they are American allies. So these Iraqi government forces, they have been planning an attack against especially Sadrists and the Mahdi Army for months. Now it’s like they had the go-ahead to do it with American air power support. We could speculate—and if you read the Arab and Persian press, there’s a lot of speculation of this could have been a deal between Dick Cheney in his latest visit to Baghdad and the al-Hakim family. The al-Hakim family controls the Supreme Islamic Council and the Badr Organization. They’re part of the government. Their main rivals are the Sadr family, Muqtada al-Sadr’s family, Mahdi Army. So this is a family feud. It’s very, very vicious, and it’s the two most important religious families in Iraq battling for political and religious power at the same time. But the problem is what was Muqtada al-Sadr’s reaction to this attack of the Iraqi government forces against its fighters? In fact, the Mahdi Army, they don’t have weapons. They have basically Kalashnikovs. So when you see these pictures, these international pictures of fighters with Kalashnikovs, they’re acting in self-defense. They’re not attacking anybody. They’re being attacked by Iraqi government forces. This plays as well—this is crucial—into the US presidential campaign. It is by all means a war escalation. It could have been a gift by Dick Cheney to the al-Hakim family, but it could go way beyond that. It could be part of a deal between Cheney and the Iraqi government. When Cheney said, “Look, I’ll support the crackdown that you want against the Mahdi Army and you want this for a month, okay. We’ll support you with this. But you have to back off from your close ties that you have with Iran.” You know, the essence of this battle of Basra, which is spilling over into the battle of Baghdad, is that it plays directly into the US presidential election. You may bet that John McCain is going to use this as cover for his assertion that US needs to stay in Iraq for 100 years to fight terrorists. And who are these terrorists? The Mahdi Army.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Pepe Escobar, born in Brazil is the roving correspondent for Asia Times and an analyst for The Real News Network. He's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, based in London, Milan, Los Angeles, Paris, Singapore, and Bangkok. Since the late 1990s, he has specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central Asia, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has made frequent visits to Iran and is the author of Globalistan and also Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge both published by Nimble Books in 2007.