Iraq Seems Calmer After Cleric Halts Fighting

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
April 1, 2008 By James Glanz
BAGHDAD — Militiamen with the Mahdi Army, the followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, mostly vanished from the streets of Basra on Monday, a day after he ordered them to lay down their arms and also insisted that the Iraqi government grant a general amnesty for his followers, and made other demands.
Iraqi Army and police forces immediately moved into Basra neighborhoods abandoned by the Mahdi Army, which is the armed wing of Mr. Sadr’s political movement, setting up checkpoints and searching for roadside bombs. As helicopters continued buzzing overhead, shops began to reopen and residents ventured out into the streets. The southern Iraqi city had been a battleground since Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered federal forces to begin an assault on the city a week ago.
Mr. Maliki had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory, and the negotiated outcome was seen as a serious blow to his leadership.
The uncertainty over Mr. Sadr’s statements was underlined at a news briefing in Baghdad on Monday, where Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman, dodged questions about whether Mr. Maliki would honor Mr. Sadr’s demands. When asked if the government would release Mahdi Army detainees who had not been accused of a crime, for instance, Mr. Dabbagh said there had long been plans to let some of them go.
He said the government would “look into” Mr. Sadr’s concerns.
Mr. Maliki had said the operation in Basra was meant to root out only criminals, rather than any particular political or military group. But nearly all the fighting involved the Mahdi Army, which gave up little or no ground and essentially fought the federal forces to a standstill.
The streets remained extremely tense on Monday in both Basra and Baghdad.
As a dark Toyota sedan approached an Iraqi Army checkpoint on Monday afternoon just outside Sadr City, the huge Baghdad slum that is Mr. Sadr’s power base, a soldier in fatigues and a mask that covered most of his face pointed his weapon and shouted, “Get out of the car!”
The occupants, including a reporter for The New York Times, quickly complied. It turned out that the soldier suspected them of being members of the Mahdi Army, which tends to prefer black Toyotas.
“The Americans will shoot this kind of car, especially if it’s full of men,” said the soldier, referring to the American military, after checking identification cards and waving the car through.
Rockets and mortar shells again fell on the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, as they have for the past week, and the American military said a soldier died on Monday in northeast Baghdad when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. Another American soldier died of wounds in a bomb attack south of Baghdad on March 23, the military said. But traffic in Baghdad was brisk as the government lifted a curfew put in place during the fighting in Basra.
Within impoverished Sadr City itself, the markets were full. Even as sporadic gunfire could be heard in the distance, people took care of chores that had been suspended during the curfew: a woman in a black abaya, a head-to-toe overgarment, carried cardboard and wood on her head, presumably fuel for a fire; a man hosed off the crumbling sidewalk in front of his shop; two friends chatted at a dingy tire shop.
Levels of violence elsewhere in the country also appeared to be down, at least for a day. Tahseen al-Sheikhly, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, who had been abducted from the Mahdi-dominated Amin neighborhood on Thursday, was released Monday afternoon, an official at the Interior Ministry said. The widespread clashes that had agitated Iraq’s Shiite south were largely absent on Monday.
But officials in several cities assessed the toll of a week of fighting. Leaders in Nasiriya, the site of intense battles between militias and government forces, said 165 people had been killed and 300 wounded.
The police chief in the holy city of Karbala said 12 people had been killed and 500 arrested as a result of the fighting there.
And at a news briefing in Basra, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, asserted that in nearly a week of fighting, government security forces had killed 215 members of the Mahdi Army, wounded 600 and arrested 155. He did not give casualty tolls for the government forces.
Another Interior Ministry official said that in the aftermath of the failed assault, the government had dismissed 150 police officers and 400 policemen for refusing to fight in the conflict. And as his government’s forces took up abandoned positions in Basra after failing to take them by force, Mr. Maliki gave a speech saying he had obtained evidence that the violence in Basra was a result of the interference of neighboring countries.
“We will try to check this evidence and announce it to the public,” Mr. Maliki said.
Last week, Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Kadir al-Obeidi, conceded that the government’s military efforts in Basra met with far more resistance than expected. Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out.
Senior political leaders involved in the negotiations that led to Mr. Sadr’s statements on Sunday indicated that Mr. Maliki had been directly involved, essentially agreeing to Mr. Sadr’s demands in advance. But the picture was considerably muddied by Mr. Dabbagh, the government spokesman, who praised Mr. Sadr but gave little indication that his demands were being taken seriously.
Mr. Dabbagh asserted that “the Iraqi government was not part of the negotiations,” although he thanked members of Parliament, tribal leaders and others, who, he said, had been. At the same briefing, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Arrawi, commander of operations for the Ministry of Defense, said over and over again that the Basra operations would continue, with government forces going after criminals with weapons, but that the operations would not specifically be aimed at the Mahdi Army.
General Arrawi said he could not predict the “exact timing” of how long the operations in Basra would go on.
It was also unclear how long the lull in fighting in the streets of Sadr City would last. At its Imam Ali Hospital, the rooms were filled with people grievously wounded in the fighting there over the past week.
One Sadr official, Shiek Amar Asad, 31, said he understood that Mr. Sadr’s order to prohibit fighting applied only to Iraqi security forces. When Americans came into Sadr City, he said, the militia fighters could begin shooting.
“Maybe our case with the government is over,” he said. “But not with the occupiers.”
Reporting was contributed by Hosham Hussein, Mudhafer al-Husaini, Erica Goode and Qais Mizher in Baghdad and employees of The New York Times in Basra and Nasiriya.