By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
March 26, 2008 - Some 2,000 Iraqi security force members yesterday entered Basra, Iraq, on a mission to crack down on "lawlessness." Meanwhile, Iraqi and coalition forces have renewed similar efforts in the Iraqi capital. In Basra, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his national security ministers decided on and directed the Iraqi-led operation, while coalition forces have only "limited involvement," Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a Multinational Force Iraq spokesman, said today.
"The lawlessness is going on under religious or political cover, along with the smuggling of oil, weapons and drugs," said Bergner, quoting a statement by Maliki. "These outlaws found support from inside government institutions, either willingly or by coercion, turning Basra into a place where citizens struggle to feel secure for their lives and property."
Now in the second day of a "difficult and challenging" mission in Basra, the roughly two-brigade-sized force comprising Iraqi emergency response units, special operations forces, helicopter operators and conventional forces is seeing some success, Bergner told reporters.
"Initial reports are that they are making progress and they have had some tough encounters in their initial day or so of operations," Bergner said during a news conference in the Iraqi capital.
The general emphasized the Basra operation is not aimed at operatives of Jaysh al-Mahdi, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who pledged in August to suspend offensive operations against coalition forces and citizens and recently extended that pledge. Neither is it a proxy war between the United States and Iran, he said. Both have been reported in news media as possible motives for the new operations.
"It is the government of Iraq taking responsible action necessary to deal with criminal on the streets with weapons," Bergner said.
He added that the Basra mission reflects the growing ability of Iraqi security forces, noting that coalition involvement is limited to transition team members embedded with Iraqis, various Iraqi-coalition liaison elements and some air assets.
In Baghdad, coalition and Iraqi security forces continue to work to quell criminal behavior, including Iranian-backed "special groups" and other elements perpetrating "indiscriminate violence." Bergner noted that forces, however, are careful to exercise operational restraint.
"We have not, for example, indiscriminately returned fire on the locations from which the rockets have been launched," he said. "We have not undertaken large-scale operations against neighborhoods, just because that is where the indirect fire originated from."
Likewise, Bergner said, combined forces will continue to "show restraint" to Jaysh al-Mahdi members who uphold Sadr's ceasefire pledge.
Bergner underscored that operations in the Iraqi capital, as in Basra, are not aimed at affiliates of particular religious or political groups.
"The suggestion that coalition forces and Iraqi security forces are targeting individuals because of their political affiliation is simply incorrect," he said. "We are targeting criminals regardless of their political or other affiliation. People who break the law are arrested and subject to the rule of law."