By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
BAGHDAD, March 31 -- Residents in the southern city of Basra on Monday reported an end to fierce fighting and said Iraqi security forces were able to enter some neighborhoods controlled by fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"Today the life came back to our neighborhood but it was not that normal," said resident Raed Jawdat. Drivers had to avoid bombs planted in the road. Residents went out in search of fresh water and food but found that some markets had been burned.
Munaf Jassim, who lives in the neighborhood of Tanouma, said Iraqi forces arrived Sunday evening and launched an offensive against Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. "It was a big battle all night," he said. "In the morning we noticed all the Mahdi Army fighters fled."
The cleric on Sunday ordered his followers to stand down, apparently after receiving assurances that Mahdi Army fighters would not be targeted by Iraqi forces. Sadr's order came nearly a week after government forces launched an offensive that officials said was designed to rid the oil-rich southern city of militias and criminal gangs.
In a statement, Sadr thanked the militia for its patience, obedience and unity and offered condolences to those who died, calling them martyrs. In other parts of the country, leaders loyal to Sadr said they would refuse a government demand to hand over weapons, saying they needed guns to fight the U.S.-led occupation.
In a speech to local and provincial officials on Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on political parties in Basra to cooperate to impose the law and protect citizens. He said Basra had become a theater for criminal gangs who were taking "religion as a cover."
"The law should be the governor in Basra, and the state will not accept a partner or substitute," Maliki said.
Battles between the Mahdi Army and government security forces appeared to diminish in many parts of the country on Monday. But the commander of the Nasiriyah police, Maj. Gen Abdul Hussein al-Saffi, said his forces detained 98 individuals over the past few days on charges of carrying arms, fighting security forces or endangering civilians. He said armed clashes there caused 24 civilian deaths and 60 injuries. Sadr loyalists in the city said Iraqi security forces raided a Sadr office and detained the deputy director and others.
At a news conference in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammad, head of operations at the Iraqi Defense Ministry, said the security crackdown in Basra would continue, adding that Sadr's order would speed the operation.
Also Monday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the fighting in southern Iraq would not affect U.S. plans to withdraw more combat forces this spring, the Associated Press reported from Copenhagen, where Gates was traveling.
The United States is in the process of withdrawing about 20,000 combat troops sent to Iraq last year to curb violence. U.S. commanders say they expect to have 140,000 troops in Iraq once that drawdown is completed in July.
"I have not heard or seen anything that would indicate a need to change" the pullout plan, Gates said, according to the AP, adding that there would be "more finality" to that question when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, reports to Congress on April 8.
The U.S. military said Monday that a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in northeastern Baghdad and that another soldier died in a military hospital in Germany of wounds suffered in a bombing south of Baghdad on March 23.
A mortar attack on the heavily guarded Green Zone wounded four civilians on Monday, two of them severely, according to a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Damage to a number of government vehicles and buildings was also reported. A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy confirmed the attack, but he said it was not immediately clear if Americans were among the injured.
Special correspondents Aahad Ali in Basra, Naseer Nouri, Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.