By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
April 30, 2008 - As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stands up to insurgents threatening Iraq, it's serving to unify his once-splintered government, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters here last night. Gates pointed to Maliki's Iraqi-led crackdown against Shiite militias, primarily Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army, or Jaysh al-Mahdi.
While conceding that operations in and around the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City have seen more U.S. and Iraqi casualties, Gates said part of it is because coalition and Iraqi forces are operating in new areas. Another part is because of mixed messages Sadr is sending to his militia.
"For the last number of months, Sadr has had a ceasefire on his followers. And while he has not ended that ceasefire, he has made statements that certainly some Jaysh al-Mahdi and special groups have interpreted as the go-ahead to attack coalition forces," he said.
U.S. and coalition officials use the term "special groups" to describe enemy fighters who are trained, bankrolled and supplied by Iran.
"And so, as we work our way around Sadr City, which we have basically stayed out of," Gates said, "we are encountering ... heavy combat."
Gates said the situation represents a conflict between the Iraqi government and "lawless elements that do not want to be part of the political process."
"I think everyone has made clear that if the Sadrists are willing to participate in the political process, that they would be welcome in that process," Gates said.
Meanwhile, Maliki's actions are supported within the Iraqi government, the secretary said.
"What is intriguing is that, because of the way the prime minister has taken on the Jaysh al-Mahdi and special groups in Basra and some of these other gangs, the rest of the Iraqi government that has not exactly been known for its unity has, in fact, unified behind Prime Minister Maliki," Gates said. "He has gotten the vocal support of virtually all elements of the government, and partly because they see him acting against a sectarian group that they were concerned he wouldn't act against."
Among Iraq's neighbors, "at least all but one have taken positive notice," as well, Gates said, in a reference to Iran.