As dawn broke Monday over Iraq’s southern desert, the week-old battle for Basra seemed to have ended after Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr called for his fighters to stand down from their fierce and bloody resistance to Iraqi government forces.
Shops reopened. Residents began washing Basra’s streets and burying their dead, Reuters reported.
But explosions continued to sound throughout Baghdad. And it was not at all clear what the dramatic developments of the past few days signified for greater Iraq.
What is clear is that the stakes are monumentally high in terms of human lives, the future of U.S. operations in Iraq and the authority of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In a risky test of his government’s strength, al-Maliki launched an all-out offensive against defiant militias last week to the surprise of many members of his own government.
Demanding that militia fighters turn over their weapons, al-Maliki flew to Basra himself to command the crackdown. The city is strategically critical because it controls a hefty share of Iraq’s oil output, and the country’s only seaport is just a few miles to the south.
The showdown also set off fighting in the Baghdad slum Sadr City. And the usually protected Green Zone was barraged with rockets and mortars. U.S. planes, helicopters and ground forces backed al-Maliki.
After vowing defiantly in an Al Jazeera interview on Saturday that his Mahdi Army would liberate Iraq, al-Sadr turned a sharp tactical reversal Sunday. He called in a statement for his followers to lay down their arms if the government met a nine-point list of demands, the Los Angeles Times reported.
An Iraqi official told CNN today that Iran and a delegation of Iraqi Shiite lawmakers helped persuade al-Sadr to call the halt in the fighting.
Haidar al-Abadi, a lawmaker with al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, said the delegation traveled to Iran Friday to meet with al-Sadr and returned Sunday — the day the cleric called for his fighters to stand down.
The group comprised members from the Shiite parties in Iraq’s parliament — the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Dawa, the Fadhila party, the Independent party and the Sadrist movement.
Authority on the line
A whirl of questions was spinning Monday off the dizzying turn of events.
What was left of al-Maliki’s authority and, by extension, the credibility of the United States? Last week, President Bush praised the Iraqi leader’s “bold decision” to go after illegal groups in Basra, show his leadership and demonstrate the progress gained by Iraqi security forces.
The New York Times reported today, though, that the negotiations with al-Sadr were seen as a serious blow to al-Maliki, who had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory.
“Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out,” the Times said.
The muddle that has emerged from what was supposed to be a decisive assault has serious consequences for the prime minister, Qassim Daoud, a former national security advisor and al-Maliki supporter told the Times.
“The government now is in a weak position,” Daoud said. “They claimed that they are going to disarm the militias and they didn’t succeed.”
Asked if the erosion of support for al-Maliki could cause his government to fall, Daoud paused and said, “Everything is possible.”
The cleric or the surge?
Another major question is whether al-Sadr made a mockery of U.S. claims that last fall’s “surge,” or troop buildup, had taken the steam out of the resistance. He had called a cease fire last fall about the time the surge began.
If his latest cease fire indeed quells the fighting, it may appear he’s wielded considerable control all along and the future depends on him as much as on any action by the United States and the government it supports in Baghdad.
Over the past two years, al-Sadr’s popular support had eroded as his movement had gained a reputation for harboring criminals and carrying out vicious sectarian killings, the Times said.
On Monday, though, al-Sadr won praise from high-level Iraqi leaders. Mahmoud al-Mashadani, the Parliament speaker and a senior Sunni politician, said, “With this statement, Sayyed Moktada al-Sadr proved that he is a good politician, working for the sake of Iraq.”
Still, the continued fighting in Baghdad Monday suggested his influence may be limited. Although a three-day curfew was mostly lifted, the truce that quieted Basra seemed tenuous at best further north, according to Reuters.
“Explosions struck the ‘Green Zone’ government and diplomatic compound in what police said was a volley of six mortar bombs. Sirens wailed and a recorded voice ordered people to take cover,” Reuters said.
U.S. forces called in at least three helicopter strikes in Baghdad late Sunday after Sadr’s ceasefire, including one in which they said they killed 25 fighters who attacked a convoy struck by a roadside bomb. U.S. helicopter strikes, once rare in the capital, became common over the past week.
Yet another question is what the past week’s events portend for the United States’ planned troop draw-down – whether it’s the modest reduction the Bush administration has outlined or the larger withdrawal many Democrats advocate.
With the Iraqi government’s authority shaken, peace and stability seem as elusive as ever for the country’s river-front cities and mud-hut villages. By several accounts, more than 400 people were killed and well over 1,000 wounded in the week of fighting.
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.