Maliki halts raids on Shi'ite militants
Pressure from anti-US cleric precedes order
BAGHDAD - In a dramatic reversal, Iraq's prime minister ordered a nationwide freeze on Iraqi raids against Shi'ite militants yesterday, bowing to demands by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr one day after promising to expand the crackdown to Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued the order after Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia fought government troops last week in Basra and elsewhere, hinted at retaliation if Iraqi security forces continue to arrest his followers.
A statement by Maliki's office, broadcast on government television, did not mention the Mahdi Army by name or give a time frame for the freeze. It said the move was designed to give a "chance to those who repented and want to lay down their arms."
But the statement was issued less than 24 hours after Maliki told reporters that he intended to launch security operations against Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad, including Sadr City, home to some 2.5 million Shi'ites and the militia's largest base.
"It is not possible to look for only a military solution. There must be a political solution and that's why the prime minister issued today's statement," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top Maliki adviser.
"We must have calm. Many politicians advised al-Maliki against confrontation, warning him that clashes benefited other parties," Rikabi said without elaborating.
In his statement yesterday, Maliki said that extremists "who lay down their arms and participated in the recent acts of violence" would not be prosecuted.
American military officials did not respond to requests for comment.
In a separate development yesterday, the State Department said it will renew for one year the contract of Blackwater USA to protect diplomats in Baghdad.
A top State Department official said that because the FBI is still investigating last year's fatal shooting of Baghdad civilians, there are no grounds to deny the contract when it comes due in May. The private security company has a five-year deal to provide personal protection for diplomats, which is reauthorized each year.
Iraqis were outraged over a Sept. 16 shooting in which 17 civilians were killed in a Baghdad square. Blackwater said its guards were protecting diplomats under attack before they opened fire, but Iraqi investigators concluded the shooting was unprovoked. FBI investigators want to know whether Blackwater contractors used excessive force or violated any laws.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker has praised Maliki for his decision to strike at Shi'ite militias last week in Basra, even as he acknowledged that the operation ran into "a boatload of problems."
The clashes spread throughout the Shi'ite south and to Baghdad, where Shi'ite militiamen pounded the US-controlled Green Zone with rockets and mortar fire, killing at least two Americans.
Major fighting eased last Sunday after Sadr ordered his men off the street under a deal brokered in Iran - a move that appeared to undermine Maliki, who had taken personal command of the Basra operation.
In Amman, Jordan, David Shearer, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said an estimated 700 people were killed and more than 1,500 were wounded in fighting that erupted after the Basra crackdown. He said the figures could rise "as facts and the numbers become more clear."
US and Iraqi authorities had insisted the Basra operation was not aimed at Sadr's powerful political movement but instead at ridding the streets of criminals and gunmen who had effectively ruled the city since 2005.
But Sadr's supporters believed the crackdown was aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall. Sadr expects to score major electoral gains against Shi'ite parties that work with the Americans.
A member of Sadr's 30-member bloc in parliament, Hassan al-Rubaie, said the decision to freeze arrests was made during talks Thursday between Sadrist representatives and Maliki aides.
Rubaie said the freeze applied even in cases where an arrest warrant had been issued. He said negotiations were under way on other Sadrist demands, including the release of Sadr's followers detained without charge, reinstating soldiers and police who deserted during last week's fighting, and the lifting of the siege of Sadr City and another Shi'ite neighborhood.
In his latest statement, Maliki also said families forced to flee their homes because of the latest fighting should be allowed to return home and that cash donations would be offered to the families of those killed or wounded in the violence.
He said Iraqis whose property has been damaged in the fighting also would be compensated.
In Basra, military and police officials said about 900 Iraqi soldiers and police deserted or refused to fight the militias after the offensive was launched March 25.
The officials said the mutiny involved an army battalion from the 4th Iraqi Division numbering about 500 men as well as about 400 police officers.
Deserters said they did not want to fight fellow Shi'ites and turned over weapons and vehicles to the Mahdi Army, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Iraqi officials have acknowledged desertions but described the numbers as insignificant.
However, the desertions cast new doubt on the effectiveness of US-trained Iraqi security forces. The White House has conditioned further US troop withdrawals on the readiness of the Iraqi military and police.