After six days of fighting against U.S. and Iraqi forces, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army followers Sunday to lay down their arms. In the Washington Post version of events, the cease fire order is on condition of an Iraqi government agreement to release detainees and give amnesty to Sadr's fighters. In the Post world view we are witnessing a Moqtada al Sadr political power play, and it's al Sadr who holds all the cards.
The escalating clashes threaten to collapse a cease-fire imposed by Sadr on his militiamen last August, one reason for tenuous security gains across Iraq in recent months. Contributing to the reduction in violence were a buildup of 30,000 U.S. troops and the rise of a Sunni movement that turned against the extremist insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In 2004, Sadr's militiamen fought fierce battles in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, refusing to surrender or negotiate until Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani stepped in and brokered a truce. Today, Sadr appears more politically astute. If he succeeds in helping end the clashes, it could improve his standing ahead of provincial elections later this year.
His demand that the government return all Sadr followers displaced by raids and violence could repopulate areas with potential voters.
Today's Wall Street Journal editorial is less confident in al Sadr's ability to control events, but frets that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki may have bitten off more than he can chew by challenging the Mahdi Army in Basra.
Among the worst mistakes of the Iraq war has been starting battles we weren't prepared to finish. Think Fallujah in 2004. We hope Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki absorbed that lesson before he began his campaign last week to defeat rogue militias in Basra.
Yesterday's political maneuvering amid a new cease-fire offer by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is hard to read from afar. "Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us," Mr. Sadr said. The government welcomed the offer while saying it would continue its Basra campaign, and it wasn't clear how many in the Mahdi Army and its offshoots would even heed Mr. Sadr. There were also conflicting reports of whether the militias would give up their weapons.
The worst outcome would be for Iraqis to conclude that Mr. Maliki and the Iraqi Security Forces are backing down amid more resistance than they expected. This would be a blow to the morale of the fledgling army just when it has been gaining confidence, and it would damage Mr. Maliki's own credibility with the Iraqi public. To adapt Napoleon's famous admonition, if you decide to take Basra -- take Basra...
...Some Americans -- including more than a few in the U.S. military -- think the U.S. has little stake in the Basra fight. But President Bush clearly isn't one of them. "Any government that presumes to represent the majority of people must confront criminal elements or people who think they can live outside the law," Mr. Bush said at the White House on Friday. "And that's what's taking place in Basra and in other parts of Iraq. I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq."
Based on reporting by Bill Roggio, I'm inclined to agree that this is a defining moment -- perhaps the defining moment in the Iraq war, and it hasn't been going well for the Mahdi Army.
The Iraqi government has welcomed Sadr’s call for his followers to cease fighting. "The order to pull off gunmen off Basra along with all Iraqi provinces and to disavow those who has taken up arms against government offices and security forces is responsive and patriotic," Ali al Dabagh, the spokesman for the Iraqi government, told Voices of Iraq. The Iraqi government has not called for a halt in military operations.
Sadr’s call for an end to fighting by his followers comes as his Mahdi Army has taken high casualties over the past six days. Since the fighting began on Tuesday, 358 Mahdi Army fighters were killed, 531 were wounded, 343 were captured, and 30 surrendered. The US and Iraqi security forces have killed 125 Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad alone, while Iraqi security forces have killed 140 Mahdi fighters in Basrah.
From March 25-29 the Mahdi Army had an average of 71 of its fighters killed per day. Sixty-nine fighters have been captured per day, and another 160 have been reported wounded per day during the fighting. The US and Iraqi military never came close to inflicting casualties at such a high rate during the height of major combat operations against al Qaeda in Iraq during the summer and fall of 2007.
US and Iraqi forces are maintaining the high pace of operations against the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups. While the daily reporting from Iraq is far from over, initial reports indicate at least 18 Mahdi Army fighters have been killed and another 30 captured.
US soldiers killed 14 Mahdi fighters in Baghdad during a series of separate engagements. Iraqi security forces killed four Mahdi Army fighters and captured another 30 in Babil province, where a major offensive led by the police has been underway.
If Bill Roggio's accounts are accurate, we could be watching the start of the final campaign, one in which U.S. and Iraqi forces are clearly determined to prevail.