Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Friday declared a halt to raids on armed Shiite Muslim gangs in Baghdad and southern Iraq, just a day after announcing his intent 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 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 Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
The announcement also called for security forces to arrest anyone carrying a weapon on the streets.
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 restore law and order in Iraq’s second-largest city. Sadr loyalists described the campaign as an effort by political enemies to crush the cleric’s grass-roots movement before provincial elections in October.
The fighting spread quickly to Baghdad before Sadr called on his followers Sunday to put down their arms. At least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers deserted during the clashes, a senior U.S. military official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. More than half the police in Baghdad’s Sadr City and parts of Basra also abandoned their posts, a Western official told The Times this week.
As both sides claimed victory, 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 Maliki had taken a pause Friday after his bellicose comments.
“Iraqis need to figure out a way to deal with it [the militia problem], which means going in more slowly,” he said.
Both American and Iraqi officials have acknowledged that the government was taken aback by the response of the Mahdi Army to the Basra offensive.
Echoing comments by other Western officials, the U.S. military official expressed frustration over 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 Maliki’s advisors.
Before this recent operation, Maliki had expressed anger at U.S. commanders over military raids in Sadr City and other Shiite areas in the capital, a Western advisor to the Iraqi government told The Times in January.
Clerics with Sadr’s movement lashed out at Maliki during Friday sermons. In Sadr City, demonstrators held up posters depicting Maliki as a parrot repeating the words of Abdelaziz Hakim, the leader of the largest Shiite party in the Iraqi coalition government. Maliki is with the Islamic Dawa Party, another Shiite grouping. In Basra, protesters chanted that Hakim had “fooled Nouri.”
The anger alluded to what Sadr’s followers say is a double standard on the part of the government and the Americans regarding the Badr Organization, the armed wing of Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. 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.
In the shrine city of Kufa, cleric and Sadr ally Sheik Abdul-Hadi Mohamedawi cursed Maliki and President Bush.
“Bush told Maliki that this is a test. We on our part tell Maliki that he has two tests, either you please God or you please Bush,” Mohamedawi told worshipers.
Despite Maliki’s statement, fighting erupted just outside Basra between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi security forces. An airstrike was called in, killing three people, a witness said. A British military spokesman confirmed the airstrike, which he said came in response to gunfire against Iraqi soldiers.
In other developments, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the funeral of an Iraqi policeman in Saadiya in Diyala province, killing 20 people and wounding 30, police said.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed, Said Rifai and Tina Susman contributed to this report.