NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army Monday to launch a broad new offensive against U.S.-led occupying forces following a U.S. crackdown on his strongholds in Baghdad and across the south.
The U.S. military claimed new successes in campaigns against Sadr’s forces and minority Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Sadr’s chief aide told Reuters at his main base in the holy city of Najaf that a new phase had begun in a month-long insurgency across Shi’ite southern Iraq.
“We have now entered a second phase of resistance,” he said. But U.S. commanders, helped by rival Shi’ite leaders, sound increasingly confident of containing the Mehdi Army.
Tanks flattened Sadr’s office in Baghdad’s Sadr City district overnight and U.S. spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt made a hard-to-verify claim that troops killed 35 fighters in the sprawling Shi’ite slum.
U.S. forces, spurred on by mounting irritation with Sadr among Shi’ite elders, have also squeezed the outskirts of Najaf.
With British forces around Basra, they have been taking back key positions such as police stations in a string of towns across Shi’ite southern Iraq. An armored U.S. column rolled again into the center of the holy city of Kerbala Monday.
Hoon said the situation remained tense around Basra and Amara and further violence was likely in the coming days.
“Our policy now is to extend the state of resistance and to move it to all of Iraq because of the occupiers’ military escalation and crossing of all red lines in the holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf,” Sadr lieutenant Qais al-Khazali said.
The U.S. commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, said his troops were doing their best to avoid inflaming religious passions by intruding on sacred ground.
But he said: “We will be patient, but our patience won’t last forever. There is a limit to our patience with Sadr.”