By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
BAGHDAD, March 24 -- Followers of influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr launched a civil strike Monday to protest raids and mass arrests by Iraq's security forces, underscoring the growing frustrations of Sadr's group, which U.S. military officials say is playing a key role in keeping down violence in Iraq.
In some Baghdad neighborhoods, Sadrist leaders called on shopkeepers to shut their stores and for bus and taxi drivers to cease operations. Fadhil al-Bahadli, head of Sadr's office in the al-Amil district in southwest Baghdad, said followers were planning demonstrations over the next three days.
"We want security and we want to release detainees," said Qais al-Karbalaie, a spokesman for Sadr's office in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah enclave. "Our major reasons for this civil strike are the release of detainees and to stop random arrests."
A cease-fire imposed by Sadr on his Mahdi Army militia is widely viewed as a major reason for the drop in violence across Iraq in recent months, along with a U.S. troop buildup and the rise of a Sunni movement that has turned against Islamist extremists. But in recent weeks, Iraqi security forces have clashed with Mahdi Army militiamen and conducted large raids and arrests of Sadr followers in southern Iraqi towns such as Kut and Diwaniyah. Sadrist leaders in Baghdad said that they were still obeying the cease-fire and that the demonstrations would be peaceful.
The protests came a day after at least 60 Iraqis were killed in a wave of car bombings, suicide attacks and gun violence, and the U.S. military death toll reached 4,000.
On Monday, Iraqi television news carried images of houses destroyed when shells fell short in Sunday's mortar and rocket assault on the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government facilities are located.
In a statement Monday, the U.S. military said the forensics, size and marking of the rounds indicated they were Iranian-made and that the tactics, techniques and procedures employed in the attack were "all related to the training and tactics of special groups" trained by Iranian operatives.
U.S. commanders often use the term "special groups" to refer to so-called rogue elements of the Mahdi Army who are not adhering to Sadr's cease-fire. Iran has long denied U.S. allegations that it is a source of weapons, financing and training of Shiite militias to foment instability inside Iraq.
On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the southern port city of Basra to assess new security measures for one of the country's most volatile areas. The new measures include closing off land access to the city from Tuesday through Thursday and imposing a nighttime curfew until further notice. The government ordered schools, institutes and universities to cancel classes Tuesday through Thursday and banned all movement of vehicles to Basra from other provinces until further notice.
Violence has gripped Basra since December, when British troops handed over control of the province to the Iraqi government.
"He went to see on the ground the real factors affecting the security there. He is going to take action," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki. "We should not leave the security of people to be threatened by gangs and by murderers."
Iraq, he added, had to be "careful and take care of Basra" so that it didn't fall under the influence of its neighbors.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.