Truce creates fragile calm on Basra streets

Maliki viewed as weakened by the negotiations

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By James Glanz
New York Times News Service / April 1, 2008

BAGHDAD - Militiamen with the Mahdi Army, the followers of the Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, mostly vanished from the streets of Basra yesterday, 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 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 Nouri al-Maliki ordered federal forces to begin an assault on the city a week ago.

For Maliki, who had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory, the negotiated outcome was seen as a serious blow to his leadership.

The uncertainty over Sadr's statements was underlined yesterday at a news briefing in Baghdad, where Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman, dodged questions about whether Maliki would honor Sadr's demands. When asked if the government would release Mahdi Army detainees who have not been accused of a crime, for instance, Dabbagh said there had long been plans to let some of them go.

He said the government would "look into" Sadr's concerns.

Maliki had said the operation in Basra was meant only to root out 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 yesterday in Basra and Baghdad.

As a dark Toyota sedan approached an Iraqi Army checkpoint yesterday afternoon just outside Sadr City, the huge Baghdad slum that is 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 mortars again fell on the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, as they have for the past week, and the American military said that a soldier died yesterday in northeast Baghdad when his vehicle was hit in a roadside bombing. Another American soldier died from injuries 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 the 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 yesterday, an official at the Interior Ministry said. The widespread clashes that had roiled Iraq's Shi'ite south were largely absent yesterday.

Officials in several cities assessed the toll of a week of fighting. Leaders in Nasiriyah, the site of intense battles between militias and government forces, said that 165 people had been killed and 300 injured.

The police chief in the holy city of Karbala said that 12 people had been killed and 500 arrested as a result of the fighting there.

And at a news briefing in Basra, Major General 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, Maliki gave a speech saying he had obtained evidence that the violence in Basra was due to the interference of neighboring countries.

"We will try to check this evidence and announce it to the public," said Maliki.

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.

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