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.

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.

"To those of you who have relatives in the Army and police, tell them to quit because this government is illegitimate and we will bring it down," Mr. Kaabi told the crowds.

In a sign of the militia's power, influence, and sympathy from inside the police force, policemen in their uniforms and government-issued trucks stood side-by-side with plainclothes militiamen brandishing rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns.

US forces joining the fray

The US military said it killed four fighters in an airstrike on a suspected militia hideout in Sadr City while police and hospital sources said five civilians died, according to the Associated Press.

US troops that have been surrounding Sadr City since Wednesday have now advanced into strategic positions inside the teeming slum of nearly 3 million, say witnesses.

One man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said US and Iraqi troops have taken over the municipality building on Mudhafar Square, not far the Mohsen mosque controlled by the militia.

US soldiers have been taking part in sporadic but fierce clashes in Sadr City since Wednesday, according to witnesses. The US military has been saying that it was only responding when provoked.

Sadr City residents have reported that the sound of explosions and gunfire was almost incessant from Thursday morning until the early morning hours of Friday.

Dwindling supplies, residents trapped

Many residents feel increasingly trapped and besieged by the two warring sides amid total power, water, and fuel cuts and the dwindling of food supplies. Baghdad's main produce market in the Jamila section of Sadr City was badly damaged in the fighting Wednesday.

"We just eat bread and drink tea," says one resident. In many neighborhoods, people took to baking bread in clay ovens lit by burning scraps of cardboard.

In Basra, which has been the scene of the fiercest fighting, the Mahdi Army also held defiant prayers in its stronghold neighborhoods of Hayaniyah and Hay al-Hussein.

"Maliki's new offer is a sign of failure and defeat," boasts Yahya al-Taiee a member of Sadr's movement in Basra close to the Mahdi Army there who took part in the prayers.

He said that Iraqi government forces have continued to surrender to the Mahdi Army in Basra, adding that overnight a group of soldiers dropped their weapons in Arousa Square in the neighborhood of Tamimiyah. His claims could not be checked with Iraqi officials, who are very hard to reach.

Pro-government television stations like Furat boasted the victories by Iraqi forces in Basra showing images of supposedly detained militiamen blindfolded and handcuffed. It also quoted the commander of Iraq's ground troops, Mag. Gen. Ali al-Ghaidan, as saying that 120 militiamen have been killed and 475 others wounded in Basra since Tuesday.

Mahdi al-Tamimi, a representative of the human rights ministry in Basra, said by telephone that there has been a lull in the fighting which has allowed the delivery of much needed medical supplies to local hospitals and for ambulances to transport many of the dead or wounded civilians trapped in the fighting. He was unable to provide a definitive toll.

He also said that the Iraqi Red Crescent organization was also distributing food supplies in some areas.

An employee of The Christian Science Monitor contributed from Baghdad's Sadr City.

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