In a stucco compound at the center of the Sadr City neighborhood here, a follower of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr gleefully handed out candies and toffees to visitors Monday.
“Have a chocolate,” the thin, bearded man said. “This is for our victory over [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki.”
Nearly a week after Maliki’s security forces began fighting what amounted to a draw with Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia on the streets of the southern port of Basra and in Iraq’s capital, armed militia members had melted into the background both in Basra and the cleric’s longtime Baghdad stronghold.
But the signs of battle remained: burned tires, charred pavement, bomb and rocket craters on the streets of this Shiite slum, as hundreds walked and shopped under murals and ads festooned with the anti-American cleric’s image.
Loudspeakers, meanwhile, blared praise for Sadr, who supporters say is stronger than ever after ordering his followers to lay down their weapons Sunday while demanding that the government stop its attacks and release followers of his who were detained.
Iraqi security sources said 116 people had been killed in Sadr City and 250 in Basra since the turmoil erupted last Tuesday. The increased bloodshed brought the Iraqi death toll for March to 1,079 people, according to the Health and Interior ministries. March has been the worst month for Iraqi fatalities since August, when 1,860 were killed.
The U.S. Army also announced the deaths of two American troops, one of them wounded in a bomb blast last week and the other killed in a bombing Monday in northeast Baghdad.
The resilience of the Mahdi Army militia appears to have surprised Maliki, who said his offensive was meant to crush lawless elements in Basra. Top Iraqi commanders acknowledged Monday that they had been taken aback.
“The presence of the armed men [in the street] made this operation become bigger than it was,” said Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammed Jassim, operations commander for Iraq’s Defense Ministry.
On the edge of Sadr City, where a vehicle ban was still being enforced, an Iraqi army officer stared at a giant mural of Sadr’s father, a grand ayatollah who died under the regime of Saddam Hussein and the man for whom the Baghdad district is named. “We need 100 years to be a strong military,” the officer said.
As an explosion sounded in the distance, the Iraqi officer said the Mahdi Army had better weapons than the government soldiers did, including rocket-propelled grenades and newer machine guns. He acknowledged that some policemen from Sadr City were active members of the militia and that others had offered their tacit support. As a result, the Iraqi army had to rely on the U.S. military to push back the militia in the district of 2.5 million people, the officer said as a U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle swiveled its cannon at shoppers passing by the entrance to the neighborhood.
Inside Sadr City, a policeman navigated the roads, which had been booby-trapped with bombs in case the Americans tried to enter. He said the militia planted the explosives at night and detonated them by remote control. But he wasn’t worried.
He pointed to an area where he said a U.S. armored vehicle had burned, sending flames into a police station and market. “When they see a police car coming, they don’t detonate the explosive because they don’t see police as targets,” the officer said.
At Sadr’s compound, in a room decorated with plastic flowers, Sheik Salman Freiji, head of the Sadr organization in east Baghdad, called on parliament to force Maliki to resign. He also warned that although the Sadrists were now observing a cease-fire, it was still legitimate to fight the Americans.
“The military operations against the occupation forces in Iraq will continue until the last soldier of the occupation leaves Iraq,” Freiji said.
Others at the compound compared Maliki to the late Hussein, criticizing the prime minister for targeting the Mahdi Army and not other groups in the oil-rich port of Basra.
But backing for the Mahdi Army was not unanimous on the streets of Sadr City. Some residents voiced exasperation over the violence.
Abu Salah, 55, sold fruit on the curb as traffic passed, including minibuses with coffins strapped to their roofs.
“I don’t remember a period in which we lived quietly without problems,” he said. “Indeed, I blame everyone. Just look, these actions are bad for us.”
A man who refused to give his name said people were growing tired but were too afraid to challenge Sadr’s militia.
“Mahdi Army elements are controlling the population by intimidating them,” he said. “During Saddam’s time, sometimes I was criticizing and talking against the regime in one way or another, but now it is not possible at all . . . it means death.”
The costs were high for the neighborhood. In a Sadr City hospital, Jaafar Khreibit Abdullah, 45, a teacher, was draped in a sheet, his stomach covered with gauze. He described trying to bring his daughter and another girl home when a sniper shot him in the back. The doctors removed his damaged spleen.
In the same room, Fatima Hassan, wearing a black head scarf and gown, sat by her 8-year-old son, his head wrapped in bandages. Giant welts ran down her cheeks from when, in grief, she gouged herself after a U.S. shell exploded near her house and her two sons and husband were wounded.
“I started yelling and beating myself,” she said and caressed her son.
Outside an auto parts shop, U.S. helicopter fire had left a crater. The shop’s owner swore he would fight U.S. troops if they attacked his neighborhood.
“The Mahdi Army is the people. They didn’t come from the moon,” he said.
But if the fighters were present in Sadr City on Monday, they had taken a low-key stance. In Basra, the Mahdi Army had also retreated from the streets.
The number of attacks had already dropped 20% nationwide compared with the previous day, Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said.
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed, Said Rifai, Saif Hameed and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.