Fighting ebbs in Sadr City; details of truce remain to be settled

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Fighting ebbed and residents began emerging from their homes as a deal to halt the violence took effect yesterday in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that has been the focus of clashes pitting U.S. and Iraqi forces against militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But after more than seven weeks of bloodshed, officials and residents were cautious about declaring the hostilities over.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said they were limiting operations yesterday to give the agreement negotiated by Shiite political factions, and endorsed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a chance to take hold. But they warned that they would continue to respond to any attacks.

"This agreement really doesn't change anything for us," said Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad. "If we see criminal activity -- a guy with rockets, mortars or planting an [improvised explosive device] -- we will kill him."

Despite the intermittent crackle of automatic weapons fire, residents said clashes appeared less intense than in previous days. Officials at two hospitals said they had received six people with wounds since Saturday night, and a child had died of injuries sustained earlier that day.

"Things are much better than yesterday," said Ameer Zabour, a civil servant who fled the recent fighting but returned yesterday to see whether the truce was taking effect. "I am optimistic that the cease-fire will continue and bring good results -- as long as the American forces stay out of it."

The U.S. military said it killed a gunman who attacked its soldiers. And in the worst-hit sections of Sadr City, businesses remained shuttered along main roads, which residents said were laced with bombs.

But some stores opened again in side streets.

As attack helicopters circled overhead, members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia kept watch from the district's narrow alleys but did not display their weapons.

Many militiamen were taken by surprise when the deal was announced, and some were less than enthusiastic.

U.S. and Iraqi troops have clashed daily with the cleric's followers in Sadr City and elsewhere since late March, when the government began a crackdown against private armies that was focused on the Mahdi militia. Hundreds have been killed in the fighting, many of them civilians.

Al-Sadr's followers say they have been unfairly singled out, as factions within Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's governing coalition are allowed to maintain armed wings. They accuse their Shiite rivals of using the crackdown to weaken al-Sadr's movement before Oct. 1 provincial elections.

The U.S. military has repeatedly said its clashes are with rogue elements of the Mahdi Army. The bulk of al-Sadr's 60,000-strong militia is not believed to have participated in the fighting, instead adhering to a general cease-fire ordered by al-Sadr in August.

U.S. and Iraqi forces moved into the southeastern section of Sadr City in an attempt to curb the barrage of rocket and mortar fire aimed at the Green Zone, the fortified enclave that houses the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government offices. More than 1,000 shells have been fired in Baghdad since late March, most of them from that portion of Sadr City, the U.S. military said yesterday.

Lawmakers loyal to al-Maliki hope that the deal hammered out Saturday will pave the way for government forces to move into the rest of Sadr City, which remains under the control of the Mahdi militia, said Sami al-Askari, a member of al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.

The agreement calls for a four-day halt to hostilities, during which the government wants Mahdi fighters to help rid the area of unexploded bombs. Government troops then will be allowed to pursue wanted fighters, provided the troops have a warrant.

But differences remain over the role of U.S. troops. Al-Sadr's followers want them barred from the neighborhood. The government is insisting that the Mahdi Army surrender medium- and heavy-grade arms -- weapons al-Sadr's representatives say they do not have.

Lawmakers from both sides met again yesterday to iron out details, but al-Askari said there probably would be many more meetings before a final resolution is reached.

"I think this is a step forward, but it is not the end of the road," he said, adding that ultimately the Mahdi Army must be disbanded.

In other developments, the U.S. military announced the death of a soldier in a vehicle rollover Saturday near the al-Asad air base in Anbar province.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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