(CBS/AP) A bomb blast destroyed an oil pipeline in the southern Iraqi city of Basra Thursday and rockets continued falling on the U.S.-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad, as suspected Shiite militants continued to defy an order by the country's prime minister to surrender.
Despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ultimatum for militia members to lay down their arms and sign an agreement to abandon violence by Friday, government troops in Basra were having trouble making inroads into neighborhoods that the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has controlled for years.
Residents spoke of militiamen using mortar shells, sniper fire, roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades to fight off security forces.
That's right--al-Maliki gives them a "Bring 'Em On" wannabe tough guy ultimatum and forgets to make sure he has people adequately guarding both of the main pipe lines, and the insurgents against his government decide to blow one of them up. That's what this was all about--the bureaucrats in Baghdad thought their Shia brothers in Basra were stealing too much oil, so they decided to try to put a stop to it. And, like every schoolyard taunt, everyone's got a fat lip and a ripped pair of corduroys and nobody gets a cupcake for lunch.
What caused all of this? The Christian Science Monitor has this excellent article from September of last year--and in it, you can see that what al-Maliki is doing is driven by corruption and greed, nothing more.
At the entrance to the headquarters of the South Oil Company (SOC) in Basra, a sign dating from when Saddam Hussein nationalized the oil industry in 1972 reads: "Our oil is ours."
Inside, an exasperated senior official, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, describes the onslaught by parties and militias intent on controlling the company by forcing their loyalists into key management positions. Some are beholden to the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad, which is controlled by the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the dominant Shiite coalition to which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs.
"There is an invasion by parties and militias … we are a mouthwatering prize," he says, adding that recently 8,000 people, most of them illiterate, were pushed on to the company's payrolls.
The power plays extend to Basra's ports, too, often contributing to anger and a sense of injustice among the province's estimated 3 million people. In the town of Abu Al-Khaseeb, south of the city, the newly rich are building palatial homes next to mud huts. The mansions often belong to those who have been able to cash in on the brisk business in the town's Abu Flous port, which is one the province's main four ports and is widely considered to be controlled by the mafialike family, Bayet Ashour, and certain militias.
"You can only work at the port if you join a militia. I thought about it, but then my two cousins who had joined were badly wounded in a clash. So now we just sit home and shut up," says resident Jalal Ali.
Last month, armed tribesmen forcefully brought oil production to a standstill at the Majnoon oil field, 38 miles north of Basra city, after the SOC refused to meet their demands for jobs in the area. An official at the company, which controls oil exploration and production throughout southern Iraq, confirmed the incident.
Many are also profiting off the oil by tapping right into the pipelines.
SOC's oil pipelines are regularly sabotaged and drilled into to steal crude and smuggle it outside Iraq, says the unnamed official at the company. Many in the province even accuse Gov. Muhammad Mosabeh Waeli's Fadhila Party, whose partisans dominate the oil protection force, of colluding with the smugglers. Mr. Waeli has vehemently denied the charges, calling them "a smear campaign orchestrated by pro-Iranian parties."
Now that the pipeline has been blown up, nobody gets to tap into it. That's how that works. When one faction moves in Basra, others emerge and begin striking out. Remember--it's farther from Baghdad to Basra than it is from Washington D.C. to New York City. Events in one area shouldn't really affect the other, except that the opposite seems to be happening. Shia militias are suddenly reforming and resuming their old ways. The power struggle is apparently starting anew after a brief respite.
CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan reports the Green Zone, not long ago one of the safest areas of Baghdad, has become in recent days one of the deadliest.
In a visit to one of the foreign embassies inside the area, Logan says she and her crew had to quickly move into protective bunkers four times within one hour due to the relentless rocket fire. She says all non-essential movement of personnel within the Green Zone has been restricted.
The U.S. military said Wednesday that 16 rockets had slammed into the U.S.-protected Green Zone. One soldier with the U.S.-led coalition, two American civilians and an Iraqi soldier were wounded in the attacks, it said. At least 11 Iraqis were killed elsewhere in the capital by rounds that apparently fell short, police said.
A Pentagon official said reports from the Basra area indicate that militiamen had overrun a number of police stations and that it was unclear how well the Iraqi security forces were performing overall. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, remained in Basra to supervise a crackdown against the spiraling violence between militia factions vying for control of the center of Iraq's vast oil industry, located near the Iranian border. The events threatened to unravel a Mahdi Army cease-fire and spark a dramatic escalation in violence after a monthslong period of relative calm.
You're darned right al-Maliki is in Basra--he wants to escalate this into full-scale civil war.
Yes, but what the likes of John McCain, Uncle Bimbo, Michael O'Hanlon and the rest of the peanut gallery doesn't understand is that the surge--which was intended to provide the Iraqi government a respite from the violence so that it could get its act together and govern more effectively by reconciling political differences--was a fucked up strategy to begin with. Political pressure forced us to make a deal with the devil and kick the can down the road. Well, before we could get to the fall elections, al-Maliki decided he needed to hit his enemies in Basra in order to squeeze more money out of the exportation of oil. Couldn't they sit on this guy until the fall election? Because if there's one person who deserves the blame for blowing McCain's chances this fall it's al-Maliki. I guess their little visit didn't go so well.
This is one of those times when it would be nice if the pundit media could drop any pretense that the surge is working and explain to everyone how Shia on Shia violence is now a real factor in what we do. All they have to do is start looking at what the working media is telling us from Iraq and start dealing with reality. Forget the Sunnis and AQI--this is going to get deadly. By the time they're through, Iraq's oil producing infrastructure might collapse completely, and all because no one could figure out how to distribute the spoils so that everyone could get a taste of the action.
UPDATE I - PALE RIDER
Noticed this a little while ago. Calling them "outlaws" is what? The new strategy for unifying the country? How pathetic.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Forty-two people were killed Thursday in Kut, southeast of Baghdad, Iraq's Interior Ministry said, the latest casualties in three days of clashes between militias and Iraqi security forces.
Iraq's offensive against what it characterizes as "outlaws" of hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia began Tuesday in Basra, Iraq's second largest city.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has been overseeing the operation in southern Iraq, has given militants an ultimatum to surrender their weapons by Saturday.
The fighting, which also saw Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone -- home to the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government -- come under fire, has threatened to unravel a delicate al-Sadr cease-fire credited with reducing bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites.
I just don't think they're giving up their guns on Saturday, or any other day.