March 31, 2008 / 12:08 AM / 10 years ago

Basra returning to normal after Sadr truce

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Residents buried their dead after calm returned to the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Monday, but fighting broke out in Baghdad despite a truce called by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to end a week of bloodshed.

A resident rides his scooter past an Iraqi soldier standing guard on a road in Basra March 31, 2008. REUTERS/Atef Hassan

Sadr called his Mehdi Army fighters off the streets on Sunday, nearly a week after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on them, sparking clashes that spread through the mainly Shi’ite south and also the capital.

Political analysts said the government offensive in the oil port of Basra appeared to have backfired by exposing the weakness of Maliki’s army.

The crackdown also exposed a deep rift within Iraq’s Shi’ite majority — between the political parties in Maliki’s government and followers of the populist cleric Sadr.

“What has happened has weakened the government and shown the weakness of the state. Now the capability of the state to control Iraq is open to question,” said Izzat al-Shahbander, a Shi’ite politician from the small Iraqi National List party, which quit the government last year.

Life slowly returned to normal in Basra, where Sadr’s masked militia fighters were no longer openly brandishing weapons, witnesses said.

Shops began to reopen. Authorities said schools would reopen on Tuesday. Residents hosed down the hulks of burnt-out cars and carried the dead in coffins in their trunks.

“We have control of the towns around Basra and also inside the city. There are no clashes anywhere in Basra. Now we are dismantling roadside bombs,” said Major-General Mohammed Jawan Huweidi, commander of the Iraqi Army’s 14th division.

The government painted the crackdown as an attempt to assert state authority in a lawless city. Militias have fought for influence in Basra, which controls 80 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues, but Sadr’s followers saw the offensive as an effort to sideline them ahead of provincial polls due by October.

The Sadrists, who boycotted the last elections in 2005, are vying for control of the south with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a backer of Maliki’s administration.

Violence could return before the elections, said Mustafa Alani, analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

“It will be a short honeymoon, especially with election time coming up ... Things will escalate before they decline.”


In Baghdad, where a three-day curfew was mostly lifted, the truce seemed tenuous at best. Rockets and mortar bombs struck the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound.

U.S. military spokesman Major Mark Cheadle said there were clashes in several Baghdad neighborhoods early on Monday.

“The attacks haven’t stopped. There’s still a lot of enemy out there, we’re not going to quit protecting the populace,” Cheadle said. But he said fighting in the capital had eased over the past two days and U.S. forces expected it to ease further.

A U.S. airstrike killed six and wounded an unknown number in the vicinity of Sadr City after gunmen fired on a tank patrolling the area, Cheadle said.

Another three gunmen were killed by U.S. soldiers in a separate incident in Sadr City, the east Baghdad slum that is Sadr’s main stronghold in the capital.

The area remained sealed off by U.S. and Iraqi troops, said resident Mohammed Hashin.

Reuters correspondents said southern towns that have seen fighting such as Kut, Hilla and Nassiriya also seemed quieter.

The operation was the biggest test yet for the government’s troops, but yielded little success in driving fighters from the streets.

Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in England, said Maliki had staked his political credibility on the show of force in Basra and lost.

“Maliki’s credibility is shot at this point. He really thought his security forces could do this. But he’s failed.”

Sadr announced the surprise ceasefire after talks behind the scenes with parties in Maliki’s government. As part of the deal, Sadr’s aides say, authorities are to end roundups of his followers and implement an amnesty to free prisoners.

The Interior Ministry said 210 people had been killed and 600 wounded in Basra during the week. In Sadr City, 109 dead bodies and 634 wounded were brought to just two hospitals, said Ali Bustan, head of the health directorate for eastern Baghdad.

Scores more died elsewhere in the capital and the south.

Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra, Aseel Kami, Aws Qusay and Randy Fabi in Baghdad; Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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