By Sholnn Freeman and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 31, 2008
BAGHDAD, March 30 -- Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers Sunday to lay down their arms and end six days of clashes against U.S. and Iraqi forces if the government agrees to release detainees and give amnesty to Sadr's fighters, among other demands. But after the statement, mortar attacks continued in Baghdad and Basra, and violence persisted in many pockets of the country.
Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the government, described Sadr's statement as a "positive step," but he said Iraqi security forces would continue to try to bring order to Basra, a southern oil center. A government offensive there against militias triggered clashes across southern Iraq and in Baghdad last week. Iraqi forces "will finish the job," Dabbagh said.
Sadr's nine-point statement instructed his Mahdi Army militia to cooperate with government efforts to achieve security, but stopped short of ordering them to turn in weapons to Iraqi security forces, as the government has demanded. Sadr also used the opening of the statement as a rallying cry against occupation forces, describing them as the "armies of darkness."
In exchange for an end to fighting, Sadr demanded that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki release hundreds of detained Sadr followers not proven guilty of crimes. Over the past few months, Iraqi security forces have raided the homes of hundreds of Sadr followers, arresting and detaining them. Thousands more have fled. Sadr demanded that they be returned to their homes.
Mahdi Army commanders and fighters in Baghdad and across southern Iraq appeared to have mixed reactions. Some laid down their arms while others kept fighting.
The text of Sadr's statement was negotiated in the Iranian city of Qom between Sadr representatives and a group of lawmakers aligned with Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition. It came after Maliki, as well as Iraq's defense minister, acknowledged they had underestimated militia resistance in Basra. Although U.S. and British forces backed Iraqi troops in Basra with air power and special forces, the fighting has reached a stalemate, with militias still in control of large sections of the city.
Ali al-Adeeb, a prominent Shiite legislator in Maliki's Dawa party, said lawmakers are worried that the conflict is causing instability in the country that is not to "the benefit of all sides." He said he reassured the Sadr representatives that the Basra operation was not targeting political parties, as the Sadrists have alleged.
The escalating clashes threaten to collapse a cease-fire imposed by Sadr on his militiamen last August, one reason for tenuous security gains across Iraq in recent months. Contributing to the reduction in violence were a buildup of 30,000 U.S. troops and the rise of a Sunni movement that turned against the extremist insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In 2004, Sadr's militiamen fought fierce battles in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, refusing to surrender or negotiate until Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani stepped in and brokered a truce. Today, Sadr appears more politically astute. If he succeeds in helping end the clashes, it could improve his standing ahead of provincial elections later this year.
His demand that the government return all Sadr followers displaced by raids and violence could repopulate areas with potential voters.
The military said Sunday that U.S. troops, frequently backed by helicopters, killed at least 16 fighters who were either firing at U.S. ground patrols or rigging roadside bombs, car bombs or mortars. A U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bomb attack north of Baghdad, and a Marine was killed by a roadside bomb in Anbar province, in western Iraq, the military reported. For the seventh day, rocket and mortar fire pounded the Green Zone, the U.S. and Iraqi government and military compound in the capital.
Iraqi security forces battled gunmen in Abu Dasheer, south of Baghdad, in clashes that killed nine gunmen and two police officers and wounded 33. Gunmen also attacked a joint checkpoint in Shulla in northwestern Baghdad, killing three policemen. Roadside bombs in western Baghdad killed three policemen.
Iraqi police also fought gunmen in Kirkuk in the north; five insurgents and two policemen died.
In his statement, Sadr dissociated his political movement from anyone carrying weapons targeting government forces or party offices. He ordered followers to end public displays of weapons in Basra and other Iraqi provinces. "The withdrawal according to Moqtada al-Sadr order will be carried out within 24 hours and not immediately, so do not be surprised if you will see armed men now in some streets," said Salah al-Ubaidi, Sadr's chief spokesman in Najaf.
Hazim al-Araji, a close aide to Sadr, told journalists in Najaf that the government had guaranteed that arrests and detentions of Sadr followers would stop. But it remained to be seen whether fighters in Sadr's decentralized militia would heed his orders.
In the city of Kut, Jafar Abu Sadiq, a senior Sadr leader, said the Mahdi Army had withdrawn half its forces but remained poised for battle. "They are worried that if they withdraw, the Iraqi forces might attack them and detain them. And by the way, a few minutes ago 15 Mahdi Army men were arrested and two others were killed by the Iraqi forces," Sadiq said. "We do not trust them."
In the city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad, Sadr militiamen withdrew from the streets to their homes and farms. But they were still concerned about the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Sadr's chief Shiite rival.
In the adjacent cities of Najaf and Kufa, police returned to checkpoints as fighters withdrew. And in several areas of Baghdad, Mahdi Army fighters and commanders indicated that they would obey Sadr's orders.
"But of course, we want guarantees from the government that they will not carry out a detention campaign," said Abu Mohammed al-Bahadili, a fighter in Baghdad's Hay al-Amil neighborhood.
He interpreted the government's overtures to Sadr as a sign of weakness -- that it is unable to defeat the Mahdi Army. "The fighting has proved they have learned a lesson," Bahadili said. "The government is dead from our point of view."
In Basra, Ali Abdel-Amir, a 25-year-old leader of a Mahdi Army unit, said he would immediately pull back men from their positions. "I will obey this order and will order my fighters to pull out," he said. But residents said they saw Mahdi Army militiamen continuing to battle Iraqi security forces.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Aahad Ali in Basra and Naseer Nouri, Zaid Sabah and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.