Iraq's Maliki backs off ultimatum to militants
Top politicians race to avoid all-out war between feuding Shiite factions as US forces launch airstrikes against Mahdi Army targets.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki backed off its ultimatum to the Mahdi Army militia of fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday, giving the group's members 10 more days to lay down their weapons in return for amnesty and financial rewards.Skip to next paragraph
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The move comes as US forces began launching airstrikes in both Baghdad and the southern oil port of Basra, joining Iraqi forces in their recent effort to cripple Mr. Sadr's militia, which the Pentagon accuses of links to Iran.
The softening of Mr. Maliki's position comes after what started on Tuesday as an operation limited to Basra but quickly escalated into a confrontation with Mr. Sadr's powerful and well-armed militia in Baghdad and most of the predominantly Shiite southern cities. Iraq's Parliament held an emergency session Friday and set up a committee to mediate an end to the deadly clashes that now risk drawing US forces to the government's side in an all-out war that would shatter some of the security gains achieved in recent months.
Maliki's concession also follows a late night meeting on Thursday in Baghdad by Shiite politicians trying to broker a solution to the crisis. Former deputy prime minister Ahmad Chalabi and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari met members of Parliament from Sadr's political wing, who have labeled Maliki the "new dictator" and call for his resignation. Notably absent from this meeting were senior politicians from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) party and its affiliates, which are strongly backing the Maliki-led offensive against its archrival Sadr's armed wing.
Maliki, whose government has faced dwindling support for a while now, has swung to the side of the ISCI party, which feels the only way it can fulfill its vision of a Shiite region opposed by Sadr is by finishing off his Mahdi Army, says Ghassan al-Attiyah, a London-based analyst with intimate knowledge of Iraq's Shiite factions.
Fierce resistance from Sadr's militia
On the streets of the Mahdi Army's Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City, militiamen held traditional Friday prayers that were attended by thousands, despite a total curfew imposed on Baghdad until Sunday.
During his sermon, a leading pro-Sadr cleric, Jalil al-Kaabi, riled up the crowds against US forces saying that they were imposing a blockade on the area and preventing ambulances from transporting the dead and wounded to the hospital and hindering food supplies.