With calm restored in Basra, Iraqis ask 'Who won?'

Iraqi army soldier stands guard in Basra on April 1.
Iraqi army soldier stands guard in Basra on April 1. Nabil al-Jurani / AP

BAGHDAD — Relative calm settled over Basra, neighboring provinces and Baghdad on Monday as a ceasefire took hold after nearly a week of pitched fighting between the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and Iraqi government forces.

In Basra, people began to venture out of their homes again as Iraqi soldiers and police resumed street patrols and Mahdi Army militants hid their weapons and went home. Tankers of water and trucks of food were allowed into the city as people slowly ventured to the market to restock their empty cupboards.

In Baghdad, the government lifted a curfew that had been imposed in much of the city, traffic returned to the city's streets, and there were few reports of actual fighting.

But the situation appeared unsettled. Mortar and rocket fire continued to rain down on the heavily fortified Green Zone, where American officials remained under orders not to travel except in armored vehicles or sleep anywhere but hardened buildings.

A curfew remained in effect in the Baghdad Mahdi Army strongholds of Sadr City, Kadhemiya and Shoala. U.S. and Iraqi troops continued to surround Sadr City.

In Basra, government officials said they would pursue wanted Mahdi Army gunmen, while Mahdi Army officials said they would wait and see how the government acted.

"From our side we complied with Muqtada al Sadr's initiative," said Harith al Athari, a Sadr official in Basra. "But the coordination with the government is not clear...on the ground we have raids and arrests and we can't say our final opinion."

Government officials said they still had detention orders against 280 militiamen and denied that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had miscalculated in trying to push the Mahdi Army from its strongholds.

"There is no change in our path, no negotiations from the government side," Maliki adviser Sadiq al Rikabi said.

But few others, from foreign analysts to Basra residents, saw the end of the fighting as a victory for Maliki, who'd said repeatedly that he would not negotiate with Mahdi Army militants. Many saw the role of an Iranian general in brokering the ceasefire that Sadr declared on Sunday as a clear sign that Maliki had badly miscalculated.

"The Iraqi government looks silly in the face of their ardent statements," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a private group that studies international conflicts. He said the outcome shows "the Iraqi military doesn't have the ability to do much of anything."

Sadr, who was in Iran during the offensive, came out of the confrontation stronger, Hiltermann said.

"He remained undefeated and he looks like the moderate," he said. "He was the one that called for his forces, who were attacked, to stand down."

Ali Mahdi, an English teacher in Basra and father of two whose home lies between two Mahdi Army-controlled neighborhoods, offered a blunt assessment.

"Maliki failed," he said. He echoed Hiltermann's analysis of what the outcome showed: "They are so weak in everything, their army, their behavior towards the people, they did nothing for us."

That realization made people fear that fighting could break out again, Mahdi said, noting that he had watched Iraqi troops flee before Mahdi Army members.

"We are so afraid of tomorrow. The Iraqi Army is in the street but (the fighting) showed that the militia is still stronger than the Iraqi Army."

Many said the militia had bested the Iraqi forces at nearly every confrontation.

"The Iraqi Army is equipped with heavy machines and the Mahdi Army has simple weapons, but they have the doctrine to become martyrs," said Hussein Mohammed, who lives in the Mahdi stronghold of al Hayaniyah, which government forces tried, but failed, to penetrate. "The national army did not win the battle."

A senior government official who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject agreed that it was unlikely that the Mahdi Army would be defeated militarily.

But he said the government must continue to try to assert control.

"There is no denying that Jaysh al Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) is relatively strong because they were allowed to fester," he said. "I don't think it's possible to achieve the elimination of the Jaysh al Mahdi by military might alone. We have to be very careful that the Sadrists are embraced by the political process. The jury is still out."

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