By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s crackdown on Shi’ite militants in Basra is expected to last months and has yet to show signs that the operation is succeeding, the U.S. commander in Iraq said on Wednesday.
"It is still very much playing out. It is far too soon to say that Basra has succeeded or has failed," Army Gen. David Petraeus said of the confrontation between Iraqi forces and militants loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has also sparked fighting in Baghdad.
"It is safe to say that Basra is going to continue for months. It is a tough nut to crack. But the fact is that the prime minister has taken it on," he told the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker spent a second day in hearings before Congress on Wednesday, delivering their assessment of Iraq’s security and political progress.
Petraeus, a four-star general, told the Senate on Tuesday the Iraqi operation in Basra had been disappointing at the start because it lacked adequate preparation.
Crocker told the House panel public opinion in Iraq was behind Maliki’s effort to rid Basra of Shi’ite militants which has led to a surge of sectarian violence that has killed hundreds of civilians.
He underscored the Bush administration view that the crackdown demonstrates the strength of the Shi’ite-dominated Maliki government, despite worries among Democrats and others that it could spawn a new wave of sectarian violence between Shi’ites.
"The way Iraqis are reading the events of Basra and Baghdad is the government against extremist militias. That’s what has fused political support for Prime Minister Maliki and his government in a way that we just haven’t seen," Crocker said.
"Iraqis themselves, Kurds and Sunnis, as well as most of the Shia, are perceiving this as government against Shia extremists."
Maliki ordered the crackdown two weeks ago, provoking clashes with Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia in the Sadr City section of Baghdad and attacks on the heavily fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound. Some 13 U.S. soldiers have also died in violence since Sunday.
Before the House on Wednesday, the general and the ambassador reiterated U.S. assertions that Iran, Syria and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah were responsible for the violence, charging that they have trained, armed and directed the Shi’ite militant groups involved.
Iran denies the claim and has blamed the bloodshed on the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts; editing by Andrew Gray and David Wiessler)