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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
The government, for its part, said it will press on with its operation in Basra, which it has been insisting is against "outlaws and criminals" and not the Sadrist movement. Maliki has said he was "shocked" at the reaction of Sadr's partisans, who have dubbed him a "new dictator" and called for his ouster. While the Minister of Defense Abdul-Qader al-Obaidi said there was a "miscalculation" regarding the nature of the fight.
Intensifying Shiite rivalry
Since the US invasion in 2003, Basra, home to Iraq's largest oil fields, has become mired in a web of criminality, smuggling, and cronyism. Iraq's rival Shiite parties are all vying for power in the city, and neighboring Iran continues to grow in power there.
Sadr and his militia – the group that fought British forces the most until their retreat from the city center in September – appear to feel their perceived sacrifice has earned them the right to be a mover and shaker.
And indeed during a visit to Basra last summer, most officials and residents agreed they were the most formidable power there with streets and squares renamed after so-called martyrs of the Mahdi Army attesting to this.
The Sadrists' rise in Basra certainly does not sit well with Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the party's armed wing, the Badr Organization. ISCI has been working hard both in the halls of power in Baghdad and at the grass-roots level in the provinces to rally support for a nine-province Shiite region in the south with Basra being its economic backbone.
In his interview with Al Jazeera Saturday, Sadr said he was against federalism until the decision was debated after US forces left Iraq. He also implied that ISCI was seeking to foment trouble to delay provincial elections, which are tentatively scheduled for October.
"There are parties in the government that will try their best to prevent elections because this is contrary to their interest and this is why they started trouble in the south," Sadr said.
There have indeed been bitter clashes between government forces, mainly beholden to Badr, and the Mahdi Army in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Karbala last fall that have tipped the scale there in Badr's favor.
Jalaleddin al-Saghir, a member of parliament and top ISCI official, denies his party is attempting to weaken Sadr's influence ahead of elections. Instead, he claims, the government operation in Basra was aimed at apprehending some 200 wanted criminals and not intended as an assault on the Mahdi Army.
He confirmed that his party "would not compromise" on its federalist project, but said this would be accomplished purely according to the Constitution and political process. He says, however, that no elections will take place in October because no election law will be passed before this summer.
"But the Sadrists, with their reaction to this operation, have made a huge mistake," he says.
The Iranian connection
The US accuses Iran of funding, training, and equipping an elite faction of the Mahdi Army known as the special groups it says are responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against US troops in Iraq. One of the main gateways for Iranian activities is Basra, according to the US military.
"There is no question [that] the government of Iran has significant influence in Basra and in southeastern Iraq in general," says Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner.
In his interview Saturday, Sadr demanded the release of one of the founders of the special groups, Qais al-Khazali, now in US custody along with his brother and an operative from Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement and militia in Lebanon. They were all captured by US-led coalition troops in Basra one year ago on charges of setting up the nucleus for a Hizbullah-like organization in Iraq. Sadr claimed that all factions were now under his control.
"Yes some people split from us momentarily but they are all coming back now to their dad," he said.
A similar assessment was offered Thursday by a ranking operative in the militia based in Baghdad. He said that Mr. Khazali's decision to assert himself at Sadr's expense had initially angered him but that now all these rifts have been supposedly healed and that Sadr has learned how to better divide up responsibilities.
As to his relationship with Iran, Sadr was more evasive. He said he told Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, recently that he will not be "your political and military extension," while pointing out to some "corrective" measures that it needed to take in Iraq, perhaps in a suggestion that it needed to rethink its long-standing relationship with his bitter rivals ISCI and Badr more to his favor.
"I mentioned a few things that must be done to correct Iran's situation in Iraq. Iran must have a new agenda in Iraq," said Sadr, in his interview with Ghassan bin Jedou, Al Jazeera's Beirut bureau chief, who has impeccable contacts with both Iran's and Hizbullah's leadership.
Ghassan Attiyah, a London-based analyst with intimate knowledge of Shiite affairs, said Iran will do everything in its power to support Sadr and make sure the Mahdi Army is not defeated by the Americans or its rivals because doing so at this stage at least "would hand the Americans a victory."
The International Crisis Group had in fact warned the US in a February report not to take advantage of Sadr's decision to pause the activities of his militia in August in order to "deal the Sadrists a mortal blow," because this will squander the gains of the surge and plunge Iraq into "another explosion of violence."
Mr. Attiyah says ISCI and Badr may have succeeded in drawing the US into their struggle with Sadr, who has always been someone very difficult for the Americans to deal with, or even understand.
In fact, Sadr joked during the interview that perhaps the Americans may be the only ones confused with his "tactics," namely that his freeze in August was largely an opportunity to streamline his militia, which had been linked to the worst episodes of sectarian killing and cleansing when Sunnis and Shiites were battling each other in 2006 and 2007.
Attiyah said that by backing ISCI and Badr – and refusing to seriously engage Sadr and even fighting him – the Americans are replicating their policies in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories of refusing to deal with hard-line entities Hizbullah and Hamas that maintain vast popular support.
"The democracy proposed by the Americans in the region and now in Iraq is like telling people you can have a car as long as it's a Model-T Ford," he says.