Nouri al-Maliki tar en stor sjanse når han setter hæren inn mot Mahdi-militsen i Sadr City. Dette er Mahdi-hærens hjemmeterritorium, og de har lokalbefolkningens støtte. Krig i disse trange gatene må nødvendigvis koste sivile livet.
Hala Jaber fra Sunday Times har vært embedded med Mahdi-militsen. Hun få se ødeleggelsene på nært hold og de menneskelige omkostningene. De er store og kan bli større hvis Moqtadah al-Sadri nekter å inngå våpenhvile.
Last week the Mahdi fighters took advantage of the sandstorms, which grounded US helicopters, to blast the Iraqi army’s front line positions with roadside bombs, mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and machinegun fire.
Embedded with them for four days and three nights, I witnessed the fighting at close quarters, learnt of preparations being made by Mahdi special forces to spread the violence to other parts of Baghdad and heard their commanders swear to paralyse the government and destroy Maliki if their own leader authorises all-out war.
The battle of Sadr City, with all the human misery it entails, is in danger of spilling out across the capital, reversing the security gains that followed last summer’s American troop surge.
It is little wonder that US commanders say the Shi’ite militias backed by Iran now pose a greater threat than the Sunni insurgents who were their deadliest enemies when Al-Qaeda in Iraq was at its peak.
«We can bring Baghdad to a standstill,» boasted one Mahdi commander. «Be assured that when all-out war is eventually declared, we will be able to take over the city.»
Another commander, who gave his name as Abu Ahmad, was limping from an injury sustained one week into the battle when his unit set an American tank on fire, only to be wiped out by a helicopter gunship.
He spoke softly as he described seeing his best friend, Uday al-Dulemi, killed in front of him. Dulemi’s father refused to accept condolences and insisted that his «martyred» son’s burial be treated as his wedding day. He said that if his three other sons in the Mahdi Army were killed too, he would volunteer himself.
The Mahdi Army also claims to have a secret weapon at its disposal. Its elite special forces, called «The Nerves of the Righteous – the Islamic Resistance in Iraq», are said to be lying in wait in sleeper cells across the country, ready to carry out unspecified «spectacular» attacks against coalition forces.
Many of the members, known as «shadows», have been trained in Iran.
According to a senior aide to Moqtada al-Sadr, they are capable of raining down missiles on the heavily protected Green Zone where the Iraqi government and US military are based, causing disarray among Iraq’s security forces and halting the work of ministries.
They have also created a potential «ring of fire» around Sadr City that could be ignited in the event of a full-scale offensive by Maliki.
Whether Sadr or Maliki will order an escalation of the conflict in the days ahead depends on efforts to secure a resolution.
Sadr is understood to believe that his rival has set out to destroy his power bases in Baghdad and Basra to ensure that he is a spent force before local elections in the autumn.