Sadr reins in Shiite militiamen, sends mixed signals
Battles continued to rage Sunday between the radical cleric's Mahdi Army and Iraqi and US forces.
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi religious leader whose Mahdi Army has been locked in a deadly battle with Iraqi forces, aided by the US military, in Baghdad, Basra, and other southern cities, called for a cooling-off period in a statement issued Sunday.Skip to next paragraph
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While the announcement was welcomed by the Iraqi government as helping its effort to "impose security" in Basra, the southern oil city, it appeared to conflict with other comments by Mr. Sadr, who told Al Jazeera Saturday that the US would be "defeated just the way they were defeated in Vietnam" and that his militiamen were on the path of "liberation."
It was too early to tell whether the statement, read in the holy city of Najaf, would end fighting in the south or in the capital. But contrary to initial reports, the US and Iraqi government campaign against the Mahdi Army, say officials and analysts, is a carefully coordinated effort by the US and Sadr's Shiite rivals to deal a decisive blow to the outspoken cleric.
It's the latest episode in a strategy that has been under way for some time now to draw out the militia's hard-core elements, thus dividing it into "good" and "bad," according to the deputy chief of staff of Iraq's armed forces, a secular Shiite who has strong ties to US military commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus.
"There is the good, bad, and ugly, but the heads are linked. Now we are rooting out the bad guys," says Gen. Naseer al-Abadi.
The US has long accused so-called "special groups" within the Mahdi Army of having ties to Iran, being behind the more spectacular roadside bombings in Iraq, and more recently for firing rockets and mortars into the fortified Green Zone, the area of Baghdad that houses the US Embassy and Iraqi government offices.
But analysts say that the strategy of drawing out these "rogue elements" within the Mahdi Army in Basra quickly spread to other southern cities and gave rise to fighting in Baghdad's Shiite stronghold, Sadr City.
If the battle does continue, critics warn, it risks driving Baghdad and the whole southern half of the country into a precipice and perhaps leading to a civil war between Shiite factions.
"The US was involved in the initial decision to move against the Mahdi Army.… The Americans are going to help crush the Sadrists by siding with Hakim and Dawa," says Mustafa al-Ani, a Dubai-based analyst with the Gulf Research Center, referring to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the force behind the ruling Shiite political bloc which includes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.