Sandstorms whipped through Baghdad again Friday, cloaking the city in a reddish shroud through which the sounds of gunfire from the bloody power struggle in Sadr City continued to echo. Thursday had seen the most intense sandstorms in the capital in many months, as gales swept in from the desert. The blinding winds closed Baghdad International Airport, emptied streets and left many Baghdadis struggling for breath.
But one part of the city where things continued as normal was the Shi'ite neighborhoods of east Baghdad, where militiamen fighting Iraqi and U.S. forces plunged into the squall to launch rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone throughout the day as U.S. military helicopters remained grounded. And, late Friday night, fighters from the Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr staged a ground attack against Iraqi forces that had been pressing into the militia's Sadr City stronghold. Police said Iraqi troopers fled during the assault, which killed two and left nine other wounded.
Reports of desertions, retreats and insubordination by Iraqi forces deployed against the Mahdi Army have become commonplace, as fighting between the two sides continues in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Gen. Babakir Baderkhan Zibari, chief of staff of the Iraqi Joint Forces, acknowledged that some Iraqi troopers had been refusing to fight Sadr's forces. An estimated 1,300 Iraqi soldiers refused to fight or even switched sides during confrontations between Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army in Basra last month. And twice in recent days, Iraqi troops were reported to have abandoned posts in Sadr City.
The Mahdi Army, clearly out to take maximum advantage over divisions in the ranks of Iraq's predominantly Shi'ite security forces, issued a statement Friday urging soldiers and policemen to desert.
"To all brothers in the government's forces of army and police commandos, we invite you to repent and rejoin the national line and embrace your suffering people," said the Mahdi Army statement, which appeared on leaflets scattered around Baghdad. The statement said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was "just like Saddam's."
Meanwhile, as the Shi'ite-led government battled the militias of the country's largest Shi'ite political movement, Sunni militants continued to press their own agenda through a series of vicious bombings in different parts of Iraq. A suicide bomber attacked a funeral near Kirkuk Thursday, killing some 50 people. The attack, the third such strike this week in Iraq, targeted members of the so-called Awakening movement, the Sunni tribal formations that have broken with al-Qaeda in Iraq and now cooperate with the Americans. And in Baghdad on Thursday, Sunni militants gunned down three other members of the movement, and killed five more with a roadside bomb.
In a statement that emerged on the Internet Friday, Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, ridiculed the Awakening movement. "Weren't these Awakening [Councils] supposed to hasten the departure of the American forces, or are these Awakenings in need of someone to defend them and protect them?" said al-Zawahri. In the message, he also jeered recent congressional testimony by the commander for U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who wants U.S. forces to remain in Iraq at pre-surge levels at least into next year.
"The truth is that if Bush keeps all his forces in Iraq until doomsday and until they enter hell, they will only see crisis and defeat by the will of God," said al-Zawahri. "If the American forces leave, they will lose everything. And if they stay, they will bleed to death." Of course, the Qaeda leadership hiding in wilds of Pakistan is unlikely to have any decisive impact on events in Iraq. But when the dust settles in Baghdad, the U.S.-backed government's own authority will look even shakier, under growing pressure not only from challengers among the majority Shi'ites, but even from the very Sunnis who make up the Awakening movement on which the American strategy has been so dependent.