Militiamen with the Mahdi Army, the followers of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, mostly vanished from the streets of Basra on Monday, a day after he ordered them to lay down their arms and also insisted that the Iraqi government grant a general amnesty for his followers and made other demands.
Iraqi army and police forces immediately moved into Basra neighborhoods abandoned by the Mahdi Army, which is the armed wing of al-Sadr’s political movement, setting up checkpoints and searching for roadside bombs. As helicopters continued buzzing overhead, shops began to reopen, and residents ventured out into the streets. The southern Iraqi city had been a battleground since Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki ordered federal forces to begin an assault on the city a week ago.
For al-Maliki, who had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory, the negotiated outcome was seen as a serious blow to his leadership.
The uncertainty over al-Sadr’s statements were underlined at a news briefing in Baghdad on Monday, where Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman, dodged questions about whether al-Maliki would honor al-Sadr’s demands. When asked if the government would release Mahdi Army detainees who have not been accused of a crime, for instance, al-Dabbagh said there had long been plans to let some of them go.
He said the government would “look into” al-Sadr’s concerns.
Al-Maliki had said the operation in Basra was meant only to root out criminals, rather than any particular political or military group. But nearly all the fighting involved the Mahdi Army, which gave up little or no ground and essentially fought the federal forces to a standstill.
The streets remained extremely tense on Monday in both Basra and Baghdad.