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Pentagon Calls Iraq Fighting Good Sign, Analysts Not Convinced

The Pentagon says the fighting in Basra between government troops and Shiite militiamen is a good sign because it shows the Iraqi government's resolve and its newfound ability to take on its problems. Some analysts have a sharply different view, and others say it's too soon to determine whether the fighting will have a positive or negative impact on the overall security situation in Iraq. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

The fighting in Basra, and rocket attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone by members of the Mahdi Army militia, have led some analysts to believe the unilateral ceasefire called by the militia's powerful leader Moqtada al-Sadr is falling apart. Among those analysts is Ilan Goldenberg, policy director of the National Security Network, a frequent critic of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy.

"It looks like it's breaking down. If it is in fact breaking down, and not just a temporary blip, then you could have a major increase in violence," he said.

That's not how the Pentagon sees it, according to Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. "I do not think at this stage, at this stage, which is mere days into this operation, anyone is prepared to stand here and tell you that they feel as though the gains we've made over the past several months are in jeopardy," he said.

In fact, Morrell says the Baghdad government's decision to take on extremist elements of the Mahdi Army militia is a good sign. "It's very noteworthy that the prime minister, that the government for that matter, is ready, willing and now able to take the fight to the extremists and to the criminals down there. They were not of this capacity some months ago. And what's more than that, it's a Shia'-dominated government going after Shia' extremists down there, and that's significant," he said.

Morrell says that is a sign of the success of the U.S. surge of forces last year, which he says gave the Iraqi government and security forces time to develop. He says Mahdi Army violence elsewhere in Iraq, including the deadly rocket attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone, are "sporadic incidents" in reaction to the Iraqi government's success in Basra. Morrell expressed the hope that the government's action will inspire Iraqi Shiites to reject extremists in their ranks, just as many Iraqi Sunnis have done.

Goldenberg sees the situation very differently. "Realistically, this is a massive power struggle between the two strongest segments in the country, at least in the Shia' south. I can't see this as being a good thing especially since you already see it spreading to other cities, like Baghdad and Kut and Najaf. What you're looking for here is potentially an all-out breakout in Shia' civil war. I can't really see how that's a wonderful sign," he said.

Analyst Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution urges caution in attributing great meaning, positive or negative, to the Basra fighting just yet. "Everyone's still guessing now. And anyone who claims that they've figured out whether this is going to be good or bad already, I think, is guilty of wishful thinking or just premature analysis at best," he said.

O'Hanlon acknowledges the Pentagon's point that the Basra operation is "impressive," and says he is "encouraged" by it. Indeed, he says there had to be a crackdown on criminals and extremists in Basra at some point. But while he is "hopeful," he is not yet sure whether this was the right operation at the right time.

"The operation only makes sense if it's done well, and if it's put in the proper political context so the al-Sadr followers have temptation or an inclination to back down rather than just fight it out. You don't want to provoke a fight to the finish with them, I don't believe, because they're just too numerous and powerful, and that would likely cause a lot more mayhem inside Iraq," he said.

The analysts say one reason the situation is not clear is that some of those fighting the Iraqi government appear to be Mahdi militiamen who have rejected their leader's call for a ceasefire. So it is difficult to figure out whether other members of the group, who do support the ceasefire, will rise up to help defend those who don't.

During a news briefing in Baghdad on Tuesday, a senior U.S. military spokesman appeared to be trying to convince Mahdi members not to join the renewed violence. Major General Kevin Bergner said the Basra operation is aimed at criminals, not at the Mahdi Army, and that those who are attacking the Green Zone are "dishonoring" their leader's ceasefire pledge.

"Indeed, we have welcomed the opportunity to dialogue with al-Sayyid (Mr.) Moqtada al-Sadr's leaders, and have done so at the local level to encourage reconciliation and other initiatives like the ceasefire. Whether in Baghdad or Basra or other communities in Iraq, no one wants to see a return to the violence of a year ago," Bergner said.

He called the last few days "difficult and challenging." Analysts in Washington trying to understand the dynamics of what's going on in Iraq this week, add words like "unclear" and "confusing."