By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 26, 2008 - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should be commended for taking the initiative to go after extremists and criminal in Basra, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today. The Iraqi government launched an operation last week to go after militias and criminal elements that do not follow the rule of law in the southern oil city.
"Citizens down there have been living in a city of chaos and corruption for some time, and they and the prime minister clearly have had enough of it," Morrell said.
News reports out of Basra said there has been fighting between the Iraqi army and illegal militias and criminal elements. Maliki ordered five extra battalions to the city, bumping the force up to 15,000.
"They are conducting aggressive military operations ... trying to rid the city of militias, thugs, smugglers that have been plaguing it for months now," Morrell said. "But I think 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."
The Iraqi security forces could not deploy a force like this in the past, Morrell said. "Part of the point of the surge was to give them the time (and) the training to increase their capability, and they are now displaying it," he said.
The coalition has provided some air support in the operation, but no ground elements, the press secretary said. "This is an Iraqi-led operation, and what's more than that, it is a Shiia-dominated government going after Shiia extremists down there, and that is significant," he said.
The Iraqi military has made enough progress that the government now feels confident in going after Shiite extremists in a part of the country where it previously had not exerted great influence.
The problems in Basra have been festering, Morrell said.
"I think the city has always been dealing with a level of criminality and corruption that no one has been comfortable with," he said. "It has not been to a point such that it became a security threat that would undermine the central government."