BAGHDAD — Followers of rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr agreed late Friday to allow Iraqi security forces to enter all of Baghdad's Sadr City and to arrest anyone found with heavy weapons in a surprising capitulation that seemed likely to be hailed as a major victory for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
In return, Sadr's Mahdi Army supporters won the Iraqi government's agreement not to arrest Mahdi Army members without warrants, unless they were in possession of "medium and heavy weaponry."
The agreement would end six weeks of fighting in the vast Shiite Muslim area that's home to more than 2 million residents and would mark the first time that the area would be under government control since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. On Friday, 15 people were killed and 112 were injured in fighting, officials at the neighborhoods two major hospitals said.
It also would be a startling turnaround in fortunes for Maliki, who'd been widely criticized for picking a fight with Sadr's forces, first in the southern port city of Basra and then in Sadr City.
Members of Maliki's Dawa Party and the powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq met with Sadr officials on Thursday and Friday to come up with a 14-point agreement to end the weeks of fighting, which has hindered the flow of food and water into Sadr City. The agreement was then passed to Sadr and Maliki for final approval, said Baha al Araji, a Sadrist legislator.
Hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds have been wounded in the fighting, which included frequent U.S. airstrikes. At least 8,500 people have been driven from their homes, and thousands of others have been forced to stay inside, too frightened to flee.
A government supporter said the Sadrists were brought to the table by the anger of Sadr City residents. On Thursday, the Iraqi military ordered Sadr City residents to evacuate in apparent preparation for a major offensive push.
"It is not the government who pressured the Sadrists into entering this agreement," said Ali al Adeeb, a leading member of the Dawa party. "It is the pressure from the people inside Sadr City and from their own people that will make them act more responsibly."
Like many things in Iraq, the precise effect of the agreement won't be known immediately. Sadr officials long have claimed that their militia has no heavy weaponry, and Sadr has condemned those with such munitions.
Sadr supporter Araji, however, said the agreement specifically barred American forces from entering Sadr City.
"The Iraqi forces, not the American forces, can come into Sadr City and search for weapons," Araji said. "We don't have big weapons, and we want this to stop."
The Mahdi Army, and the Sadr movement in general, has been losing support in the past two months in the face of a government offensive intended to force the militia from its controlling positions in Basra and Sadr City.
In Basra, a city known for culture and music, Shiite extremists had taken control in late 2005 and began shutting down music stories and forcing women to cover themselves.
But after initially resisting Maliki's offensive, the Sadrists ceded their areas, and the change in atmosphere has been palpable. An annual poetry festival, al Mirbed, resumed for the first time in three years, with male and female folk dancers performing in public and poets spouting their verses.
The city isn't free of Sadr influences, however, though the Iraqi army seems ready to quell any resurgence. Sadrists resumed prayer services on Friday for the first time since late March, but as the imam spouted anti-government rhetoric, Iraqi soldiers converged on the mosque and the Sadrists ran, witnesses said.
Iraqi officials, including Adeeb, said that Iran, which U.S. officials have accused of supporting the Shiite militias, was "aware" and "supportive" of the agreement. Adeeb made two trips to Iran to meet with Iranian officials to stem the militia violence in Iraq.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008