BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a halt yesterday to raids on armed Shiite Muslim gangs in Baghdad and southern Iraq, just a day after announcing his intentions to carry out operations in districts of the capital that are under de facto control of a key Shiite cleric's militia.
The new statement, released by al-Maliki's office, left unanswered whether the prime minister was retreating or taking a break from his pledge to take on lawless elements often associated by U.S. and Iraqi officials with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
The announcement also called for security forces to arrest anyone carrying a weapon on the streets.
Al-Maliki's security forces battled last week with the Mahdi Army in the southern port of Basra, in an operation the prime minister said was meant to impose law and order on Iraq's second-largest city. The al-Sadr movement described the campaign as an effort by its political enemies to crush his grass-roots movement ahead of provincial elections in October.
The fighting spread quickly to Baghdad before al-Sadr called on his followers to put down their arms Sunday. At least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers deserted during the clashes, a senior U.S. military official said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. More than half the police force in Baghdad's Sadr City and parts of Basra also abandoned their posts, a Western security official told the Los Angeles Times this week.
As both sides claimed victory, al-Maliki told reporters Thursday that he intended to take the fight to Baghdad's Mahdi Army strongholds of Sadr City and Shula.
The senior U.S. military officer expressed relief that al-Maliki had taken a pause yesterday after making previous bellicose comments.
"Iraqis need to figure out a way to deal with [the militia problem], which means going in more slowly," he said.
Both American and Iraqi officials have conceded that the government was taken aback by the response of the Mahdi Army when they launched the offensive in Basra.
Echoing comments by other Western officials, the U.S. military official expressed frustration over al-Maliki's apparently contradictory statements. "You can believe what he's saying now. You just don't know how long it'll last," he said, faulting the prime minister's advisers.
Before this recent operation, al-Maliki had expressed anger at U.S. commanders over military raids in Sadr City and other Shiite areas in the capital, a Western adviser to the Iraqi government told the Times in January.
The anger alluded to what al-Sadr's followers say is a double standard on the part of the Iraqi government and the Americans regarding the Badr Organization, the armed wing of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council party. The Badr Organization, which has members in the upper echelons of the Iraqi security forces, has been accused of links to endemic corruption and smuggling in Basra.
Ned Parker and Caesar Ahmed write for the Los Angeles Times.