Image: Jim Miklasszewski
By Jim Miklaszewski Chief Pentagon correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/8/2004 7:34:18 PM ET 2004-04-08T23:34:18

U.S. military forces are now split between two battle fronts: Fallujah in the central Sunni triangle and southern Iraq, where they have begun a campaign to stop the violence stirred up by a rebel Shiite cleric and his supporters.

Five days after Muqtada al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi army staged widespread attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, the Shiite militants still control at last three Iraqi cities: Najaf, Kufa and Kut.

Thursday, the U.S. military launched “Operation Resolute Sword” to retake the cities and take down al-Sadr and his army.

Military commanders say a U.S. assault against the al-Mahdi army at Kut is imminent, but attempts to go after Sadr himself, now holed up in Najaf, may have to wait until after a religious pilgrimage this weekend.

Whenever it happens, the United States vowed Thursday to get Sadr, dead or alive.  According to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, “The coalition and Iraqi security forces will continue to attack to destroy this disruptive force and to kill or capture its membership and leadership.”

But the U.S. military is walking a fine line.  Pentagon officials say the attacks against Sadr must be quick and decisive, but the U.S. military must avoid excessive force and high civilian casualties.

Some experts warn that could put the U.S. in a lose-lose situation.  “U.S. strategy is a delicate balancing act.  If we’re too weak, we lose.  If we’re too harsh, we lose,” said military expert Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “We don't have any choice but to crack down. The important thing is to do it in a discriminate fashion; otherwise, we alienate the man in the street.”

Senior Pentagon officials say they came to realize there was no dealing with the militant Shiite al-Sadr and were forced to take the risk and move against him.

But since the fighting erupted this week, there’s now evidence of low-level links between Sadr’s Shiite militants and Sunnis from the former Saddam regime.

Thursday, Bob Kerrey, a former senator and a Vietnam veteran, warned the current U.S. strategy is extremely high risk and could easily backfire. “And I think we’re going to end up with civil war if we continue down the military operation strategy that we have in place,” Kerrey said during the 9/11 hearings.

But the fight will continue. U.S. military commanders could announce Friday that soldiers from the 1st Armored Division, set to return home this month, could now remain in Iraq until the end of the current round of fighting.

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