Iraq's main Shiite political bloc and supporters of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr signed a fragile ceasefire in Baghdad's Sadr City on Monday that they hope will end seven weeks of fighting that has left hundreds of people dead in the capital.
But the US military has alleged that most Shiite extremists fighting Iraqi and US forces in Sadr City have splintered away from al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army and that the cleric’s level of influence on those rogue groups is unclear. Many are thought to be trained and armed by Iranian forces. Iran denies the allegations.
Al-Sadr’s representatives and the United Iraqi Alliance agreed to institute the four-day ceasefire starting on Sunday, but talks over the details of the truce were not finished until a day later. The deal allows Iraqi forces to take over security in the militia stronghold of Sadr City today.
“Mutual efforts of all have stood against civil war and thanks to God we left it behind our backs,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Monday about the deal.
The clashes erupted in late March when Iraqi forces launched a crackdown in the southern city of Basra and Shiite extremists began firing rockets and mortars from Sadr City toward the heavily fortified Green Zone housing the Iraqi government and Western embassies.
“Any attack against residential areas, government offices and the Green Zone are prohibited from Sadr City or from another area,” the ceasefire agreement said.
Al-Sadr effectively stopped his militia from fighting in Basra within days of the initial government crackdown, but clashes escalated in Sadr City and turned the teeming slum into a battle zone as US attack aircraft and tanks were drawn into the fighting.
The Sadrists have accused Maliki, a political rival, of trying to sideline them ahead of expected provincial elections in the fall.
Al-Sadr recently threatened to launch an all out war against US-led forces but ordered his militia to avoid spilling Iraqi blood. His movement appears divided over whether to launch a full-scale fight against US forces or focus on political efforts.
Maliki used the consensus that emerged from the ceasefire to seek a thaw in relations with the Sadrists.
“I thank all who responded to reason and the interests of country ignoring personal interests,” Maliki said. “The government is targeting those who violate law and not targeting any political body.”
Under the compromise deal, Iraqi forces will try to refrain from seeking US help to restore order. The US military officials on Sunday said they were supporting the government forces and would take their lead.
The Sadrists, meanwhile, rejected calls by Maliki to surrender weapons but gave the green light for Iraqi security sweeps, saying Mahdi fighters have no “medium or heavy weapons.”
“We have agreed on cease-fire and to end displaying arms in public,” Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, an aide to al-Sadr, said. “But we did not agree on disbanding the Mahdi Army to hand over its weapons.”
The Sadr movement is keen on keeping its 60,000-strong militia force intact. The majority of the main militiamen did not openly participate in the fighting. Instead, it adhered to a general ceasefire ordered in August by al-Sadr, which has been one of the key factors causing a steep drop in violence in the country.
The ceasefire comes as the US military largely finished the building of a barrier — reaching up to a height of 3.7m — to isolate extremists from using the southern section of Sadr City and disrupt supply and escape routes for militants. The fighting was concentrated mostly in the southern part of the Shiite slum that is home to about 2.5 million people.