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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.

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Underscoring the realignment among Shiite parties that has been under way for months, Mr. Maliki, who was previously firmly aligned with Sadr's political group, has now swung to Mr. Hakim's side after the Sadrists quit his government and the Shiite bloc itself last year. Maliki has also been weakened by fractures inside his own party and sour relations with ruling Sunni Arab and Kurdish factions. The Kurds strongly share with Hakim a vision for a federal Iraq.

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"But this is another misguided policy by the Americans.... The Iranians have links to all Shiite groups, especially Hakim. They will sign with whoever wins. They are waiting to see the outcome of this conflict. They are playing a very clever game," adds Mr. Ani.

Ongoing fighting

As of Sunday afternoon in Baghdad, militiamen allied to Sadr continued to dig in for a long fight. In the capital, which has been under total curfew since Thursday, clashes pitting US troops and Iraqi forces against the militia raged on, mainly in eastern Baghdad in their strongholds Sadr City and Baghdad Jadida (New Baghdad). Residents of Sadr City reported that Mahdi fighters planted more roadside bombs to prevent US troops positioned all around from advancing any further.

On Saturday, a health official said 133 bodies and nearly 650 wounded have been taken to hospitals just from the fighting in eastern Baghdad since Tuesday. During the same period, the US military said it lost six of its soldiers in Baghdad and that it killed 153 militiamen. Residents say two of Sadr City's largest markets, Jamila and Mraidi, are now mostly destroyed.

Rockets and mortars also continued to slam into the Green Zone with many missing their targets and falling on residential neighborhoods nearby. These attacks alone that started on March 23 have killed at least two dozen, including one US citizen.

In the nine provinces south of Baghdad, including Basra, at least 200 have been killed in fighting and acts of violence since Tuesday, according to officials cited by various wire agencies.

Independent information on the true scale of casualties has been hard to obtain because of a complete blackout imposed by Maliki's government.

"We are prohibited from saying anything, only the military command can release information about casualties," says Riad Abdul-Amir, Basra's top health official while admitting that ambulances have yet been unable to venture into several neighborhoods to pick up the dead and wounded because of the ferocity of the fighting.

"Our ambulances and drivers are shot at."

Several residents in Basra confirmed that the militia continues to cling on to most of its strongholds in Basra despite the US and British-backed government offensive involving nearly 28,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen.

It appears the government may have underestimated the nature of Sadr's response and, for that matter, the extent of Iran's support to the cleric, analysts say.

While Sadr's Sunday statement called for a halt in attacks on government forces and property "for the sake of extinguishing the flames of discord," it made no mention of the Mahdi Army or a cease-fire, nor did it address Maliki's ultimatum for fighters to drop their weapons by April 8 in return for cash and amnesty.

He even said: "The Sadrist movement has no heavy weapons."