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IRAQ: Maliki vs Sadr, round 5

April 5, 2008 |  6:17 am


Iraq's roller-coaster ride on the wave of violence sparked by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's decision to take on Shiite militiamen took another twist Friday when Maliki backed off his vow to launch new offensives.

This came a day after a bellicose speech that suggested Iraqi security forces would wade into urban centers such as Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, where Shiite militiamen -- particularly those loyal to militant cleric Muqtada Sadr -- hold sway. If those battles took place and went anything like the fighting that erupted last week in the southern city of Basra, the capital might have seen urban warfare on a scale not witnessed here in years.

But on Friday, Maliki toned down his rhetoric. He called a halt to raids on militia strongholds, but also said security forces would arrest people carrying illegal weapons on the streets. It seemed to be an attempt to reduce tensions with Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia rose up against Iraqi and U.S. forces last month after Maliki decided to deploy troops to Basra neighborhoods under militia control.

That offensive led to intense battles punctuated by demands from Maliki that fighters disarm. Nobody responded, not even after he offered them money for heavy weapons.

Sadr initially called on Iraqis to reject Maliki's order. The next day, he switched gears and called a truce. Maliki followed up with his threat to keep after the militias, only to reappear Friday with his more tempered statement.

What it all means is anybody's guess. Sadr's loyalists are proclaiming victory, saying they forced Maliki to end his offensive by proving their mettle on the battlefield. Maliki's people say he hasn't backed down, and his latest statement says that people carrying illegal weapons will face arrest.

As one U.S. military official said Friday, neither Sadr nor Maliki saw great results from the fighting, and they each could do with some breathing space. Sadr stood to lose respect among Shiites if the battles spiraled into Shiite-on-Shiite warfare, while Maliki moved troops into Basra without the planning needed to ensure a smooth outcome.

The question now is what happens April 9, when Sadr has called on millions of Shiites to march in solidarity against Maliki's government and the U.S. forces propping it up.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, there was an ugly reminder Friday that violence is not confined to Shiite regions. In Sunni-dominated Diyala province north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral of an Iraqi policeman. Such attacks are hallmarks of Sunni extremists. Iraqi police said at least 20 people died in the attack. The U.S. military put the toll at seven.

— Times staff writers

Photo: Iraqi Shiite cleric Osama Tamimi delivers the weekly Friday prayers sermon in front of a poster of assassinated Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr at the shrine of Imam Mussa al-Kadhim in central Baghdad Friday. Credit: Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images