BAGHDAD – A fragile cease-fire in the southern city of Basra appeared to hold Wednesday, despite isolated clashes between Iraqi security forces and local militias and a roadside bombing that targeted an Iraqi military convoy.
An Iraqi Defense Ministry official was wounded and two of his bodyguards were killed when a bomb exploded near their convoy in the Hayaniyah neighborhood, according to an Iraqi police official in Basra who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two other Iraqi military officials were wounded during clashes in another part of the city, Qibla, as they fought against members of the Mahdi Army militia, the official said.
On March 25 Iraqi forces launched a broad offensive against militias that controlled large portions of the oil-rich port city, drawing fierce resistance that lasted until Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday ordered his Mahdi Army to stand down, apparently in exchange for guarantees that his forces would not be targeted.
Some Shiite politicians have assailed the operation, describing it as a politically motivated offensive that exposed weaknesses in Iraq’s security forces and the simmering tension among Shiite factions vying to strengthen their power in Basra ahead of provincial elections envisioned for the fall.
Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, on Wednesday described the Iraqi government’s offensive as a strike against “criminal gangs” that led to the seizure of “heavy machine guns” and more than $250,000 in U.S. currency.
U.S. and British forces supported the Iraqi effort, but Bergner appeared to distance the coalition from the offensive. “The operations in Basra during the last week were Iraqi-conceived, Iraqi-planned and Iraqi-led in a province under provincial Iraqi control,” Bergner said.
He said most Iraqi soldiers performed well, but acknowledged that some “were not up to the task.”
Police officials in Basra said a few clashes broke out Wednesday between Iraqi soldiers and Mahdi Army fighters.
Mustafa Othman, 35, a resident of the Hayaniyah neighborhood, said Iraqi soldiers and militia members fought there Wednesday.
“Frankly, the situation is becoming worse and worse, and I don’t think this conflict will be solved at all,” he said.
Abbas Abdul Hussein, 32, a police officer in eastern Basra, said Iraqi soldiers have had some success in defusing roadside bombs in the area, but he said Mahdi Army fighters were still lingering in his neighborhood.
The British military handed over control of security operations in Basra to Iraqi officials in December. Britain had been gradually withdrawing troops from the area, but officials announced this week that they were slowing the pullout in light of the recent violence.