- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

BAGHDAD — A driving ban brought the Iraqi capital a day of relative calm yesterday, a rare period of peaceful streets enforced, in part, by a Shi’ite Muslim militia — one of several armed groups the U.S. military wants abolished.

Thousands of Shi’ites — frisked by Mahdi’s Army militiamen in yellow button-down collar shirts and armed with Kalashnikov rifles and metal-detector wands — knelt in prayer at a huge outdoor service in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.

The militia that kept order yesterday was the same force that struck back after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra.

Thursday night, after a deadly bomb attack in the poor Shi’ite neighborhood, police and aides to anti-American cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr announced the radical leader’s militia, Mahdi’s Army, would help government security forces patrol Sadr City.

The government decision to legitimize joint patrols with Mahdi’s Army — which had been going on anyway — appeared to have tacit U.S. military approval, even though American forces have fought several protracted battles with the Shi’ite fighters for control of southern cities and the Sadr City Shi’ite stronghold.

Acceptance of the higher profile for Mahdi’s Army, if only for a time, signaled the extreme importance U.S. authorities have put on quelling more than a week of deadly sectarian violence after the bombing of the Samarra shrine.

Yesterday’s lull in violence followed a night of carnage in two southeastern Baghdad suburbs, where some 50 gunmen stormed an electricity substation and a brick factory nearby where they slaughtered Shi’ite factory workers in their sleep, police said. The attacks raised Thursday’s death toll to 58.

In much of the country yesterday, worshippers walked in peace to mosques to offer prayers and listen to sermons, in which some imams — both Shi’ite and Sunni — called for unity and an end to violence. But anger at Americans and the Iraqi government found its way to pulpits on both sides of the Shi’ite-Sunni divide.

Hundreds took to the streets after services in the southern Shi’ite stronghold of Basra and marched to the Iraqi South Oil Co., threatening to disrupt exports unless the government provides better protection and greater support to local authorities and private militias.

Security forces sealed off Baghdad, preventing most vehicles from entering or leaving the city of 7 million. Armed police and soldiers in body armor manned checkpoints across the capital.

Downtown was largely deserted. Most shops and gas stations were closed, though small grocery stores were open. Dozens of young boys turned parts of Baghdad’s usually busy Saadoun Street into improvised soccer fields.

A daytime curfew and vehicle restrictions last weekend helped curb the worst of the sectarian killings, but attacks resumed this week.

In scattered attacks yesterday, a mortar shell slammed into a market south of Baghdad, killing one person. And police across the country found three handcuffed, blindfolded, bullet-riddled bodies.

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