Hasty truce with Moqtada al-Sadr tests his sway in Baghdad stronghold
A cease-fire deal between Mr. Sadr's representatives in the Iraqi government and members of the leading Shiite bloc aims to end weeks of fierce battles in Sadr City.
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Several Iraqi officials said Iran was a party to the effort to stop the fighting in Sadr City, which Iranian officials have called warfare against Iraqi Shiites. If true, the Iranian involvement would follow a pattern set when Iranian officials played a key role in ending fighting between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi and US forces last month in the southern city of Basra.Skip to next paragraph
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And it would underscore Iran's growing political influence in Iraq.
On Sunday US military officials said negotiations on details of a truce were continuing between the government and Sadr representatives. But they said military operations in Sadr City had been "limited" as of Saturday night, based on expectations of an agreement.
Calling it "premature" to speak of a concluded accord, Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, spokesman for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, said the US is "acting in support of the government of Iraq as they move ahead with discussions with elements of the Sadr movement." But he said that, as of Saturday, "We are limiting our operations, just as the Iraqi security forces are."
Admiral Driscoll did not comment on any agreement that would allow the Mahdi Army to keep its weapons, saying, "We have to wait to see the details." An armed Sadr militia could be problematic for the US, since Sadr has said his forces are authorized to act in "resistance" to the US presence.
It remains to be seen how successful the deal will be at ending the fighting, which assistance organizations warned last week was leading to a humanitarian crisis. Militants in the slum have demonstrated varying degrees of loyalty to Sadr, who is thought to be in Iran. If fighting and mortar-launching continue despite the truce, it could be a sign that Sadr has lost control of large factions within his militia.
In any case, the cease-fire agreement harbors the seeds of a continuing political conflict because it does not address the differences between the government and Sadr supporters over a political movement maintaining a militia.
Members of the Sadrist movement say the government's campaign against the Mahdi Army is a distraction from Maliki's true motivations: to stop the Sadrists' participation in provincial elections set for October, and to weaken Iraq's "nationalist forces" at a time when the government is negotiating a set of agreements on a long-term US military presence in Iraq.
"We are the last, the only resistance now to the occupation of Iraq," says Nassar al-Rubaie, leader of the Sadrist bloc in Iraq's parliament, the largest group in the 270-member body. "We want an Iraq free of all outside control, and an end to Iraqis fighting Iraqis."
Mr. Rubaie says Maliki launched what he calls "the siege of Sadr City" to weaken the Sadrists politically by creating a crisis and trying to turn their supporters against them. "He knows that forces loyal to our beliefs would sweep to power, so he's acting now to try to break our movement before these provincial elections."