Officials said the so-called Special Groups was blamed for much of
the mortar and rocket fire in Baghdad. Special Groups, comprised of
current and former Mahdi Army members, was said to have been financed and
trained by Iran to attack U.S.-led coalition forces. Formally, the Mahdi
Army has been
restrained by a ceasefire since August 2007.
"There is no question that the government of Iran has significant
influence in Basra, in the province and in southeastern Iraq in general,"
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said. "We would love to see
the government of Iran fulfill its commitments to help improve security and
stability [in Basra] and reduce the activities of those operating outside
Officials said Bergner was expressing the assessment of the U.S.
military and Defense Department. They said Iran has employed Shi'ite
militias in an effort to control crude oil reserves in southern Iraq.
The United States has been helping the Al Maliki government in the first
major counter-insurgency operation in Basra in years. About 2,000 Iraqi
troops and police have been sent to the city to destroy the insurgency and
organized crime network, believed to be led by the Iranian-backed Mahdi
"The prime minister's assessement is that without this operation there
will not be any hopeful prospect of improving security in Basra," Bergner
told a news conference on Wednesday.
Many of the Iraqi troops stemmed from elite units. The Iraq
Air Force was also operating helicopters around Basra.
"Initial reports are that they are making progress and they have had
some tough encounters in their initial day or so of operations," Bergner
On Thursday, Shi'ite fighters pounded Iraqi and U.S. targets in Baghdad
and demonstrated fierce resistance in Basra. Witnesses said suspected Mahdi
Army militia members blew up one of two export pipelines in Basra.
On Wednesday, Al Maliki issued an ultimatum to Shi'ite militias in
Basra. The prime minister gave the gunmen until Saturday to surrender their
weapons and renounce violence.
British and U.S. aircraft were said to have been helping the Iraqi
government offensive in Basra. The Pentagon has stressed that the U.S.
military did not deploy troops in Basra.
"We are targeting criminals regardless of their political or other
affiliation," Bergner said. "People who break the law are arrested and
subject to the rule of law."