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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The Sadrists say their principle objective remains a sovereign Iraq that is free from the "vicious circle" they say has made their country the battlefield in the American war on terror. "The Americans are here fighting Al Qaeda and terrorism and to make America more secure, while Al Qaeda is here to fight the infidels," says Liqaa al-Yaseen, a member of the Sadrist parliamentary bloc. "The result is terror for the Iraqi people caught in the middle of this war."Skip to next paragraph
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Dr. Yaseen says the only negotiation Iraq should have with the US is one setting a timetable for withdrawal. "Maliki wants to empty the field of any nationalist movement that opposes these long-term agreements."
The cleric's partisans in government are quick to point out what they say is the hypocrisy of Maliki's offensive to disarm Shiite militias.
"If Maliki truly intends to have no armed groups outside the Army and police, then why do we have the Sahwa?" Rubaie asks, referring to the "Sons of Iraq," the armed Sunni patrols created by the US military to help fight Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists.
"What about those militias that simply entered the Army or police, like Badr," he adds, referring to the militia, now largely absorbed into the Iraqi security forces, of Iraq's largest Shiite political party.
What really motivates Maliki, say the Sadrists, is his fear that with their anti-American message they will make large gains in the next round of elections.
But that public support may be less overwhelming than they assume if the growing impatience with conditions in Sadr City are any indication. Indeed, Iraqi officials say that it was the ire of Sadr City residents that prompted Sadr representatives to reach the cease-fire agreement.
"We had Mahdi fighters shooting near our house, and then the Americans would come and shoot at them," says Abbas Alibi, a Sadr City street vendor who took his wife and four children to a camp of tents set up for displaced Sadr City residents at a Baghdad stadium. "We are not involved on either side of this fight, but it made staying in our home impossible."
Mr. Alibi says he finally decided to make his move when the government began encouraging residents of some parts of Sadr City to evacuate. "We thought surely that meant a big fight was coming."
Another father of a family sheltered in a nearby tent was more adamant. "Only government forces should be allowed to carry weapons, period," says the father of five, who requested anonymity because he has already been a target of Mahdi Army miltitants in his neighborhood. "All of the people of Sadr City are feeling that way now, so of course the militia doesn't like it."
Alibi says it will take more than the announcement of an agreement to get him to move his family home – despite the poor conditions in the temporary camp. "I'll have to go back first," he says, "and see for myself that the fighting really has stopped."