- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — The fortified Green Zone came under fresh attack today, less than 24 hours after anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his fighters to stand down following a week of clashes with government forces.

Al-Sadr’s order stopped short of disarming his fighters and left the militia intact in a blow to the credibility of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who flew to the southern oil city of Basra a week ago to personally oversee a crackdown on militia violence.

The Shi’ite leader promised “a decisive and final battle” but made little headway. A key adviser to al-Maliki said the operations against al-Sadr’s followers would end within days.

“Before the end of this week, the operations will come to an end and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be back to Baghdad,” the adviser, Sami al-Askari, said.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said, however, that “operations will not end until Basra reaches a secure and acceptable situation enabling Iraqi citizens to live normal and secure lives.”

He did not elaborate on how long that might take.

The rocket or mortar attacks on the nerve center of the U.S. mission and the Iraqi government continued more than a week of near-daily fire mostly from Shi’ite-dominated areas of eastern Baghdad.

The number of rounds going into the zone has dropped in recent days, but the continuing attacks indicate that al-Sadr may not be able to reign in all Shi’ite militia factions.

The U.S. Embassy said no serious injuries were reported and the U.S. military said it had no reports of major damage. At least two Americans working for the U.S. government died in attacks on the zone last week.

The clashes between Shiite militias and Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces began Tuesday, when al-Maliki launched military operations against the group and vowed to remain in Basra until the mission was accomplished. The battles there and violence that spread to other southern cities and Baghdad killed at least 400 people.

Al-Sadr’s cease-fire call followed intense negotiations by Shi’ite officials, including two lawmakers who traveled to Iran to ask religious authorities there to intervene, according to Iraqi officials familiar with the negotiations.

The situation in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, was relatively calm today, although sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the streets and AP Television News footage showed Iraqi troops searching house-to-house apparently targeting militants.

Some supermarkets and stores were open but residents said few people were venturing out.

A citywide curfew was lifted in Baghdad, although a vehicle ban remained on three strongholds of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in the capital.

Sadr City, the Shi’ite neighborhood where many of the mortars and rockets landing in the Green Zone are believed to be launched, was calm, residents said. Cars and buses were moving within the sprawling area, though they weren’t allowed to leave.

In other parts of Baghdad, shops and schools were open and people were heading to work.

Al-Sadr’s order was announced yesterday after lawmakers Hadi al-Amri and Ali al-Adeeb reportedly asked Iranian authorities to stop the flow of weapons to al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well as groups closely allied with the Americans. Tehran denies that it backs Iraqi militias.

The lawmakers — both of whom have close ties to Iran — also asked the Iranians to pressure al-Sadr to come up with a face-saving initiative, according to Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Near Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, unknown gunmen in a car attacked a checkpoint manned by U.S.-backed Sunni fighters, police said. Four of the fighters were killed.

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Bushra Juhi and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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