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Monday, March 31, 2008

Iraq: Green Zone

Muqtada Sadr's call for his followers to halt fighting with government forces is having a positive effect, U.S. military says. Three rockets or mortar shells strike fortified area; no one is hurt.

By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
9:36 AM PDT, March 31, 2008

BAGHDAD -- At least three rockets or mortar rounds were fired at Baghdad's fortified Green Zone today, U.S. officials said, despite an order by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr to his followers to end weeklong clashes that have killed more than 350 people in the capital and across southern Iraq.

But a spokesman for the U.S. military said Sadr's declaration, broadcast by mosques Sunday afternoon, had an almost immediate impact. Gunmen pulled off the streets, and the number of attacks dropped 20% nationwide Sunday compared to the previous day, Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said.

No casualties were reported in the attack today on the U.S.-guarded enclave, which houses the American Embassy and Iraqi government offices.

The fighting erupted Tuesday when more than 28,000 Iraqi police and soldiers began a crackdown against the armed Shiite Muslim factions and criminal gangs that compete for influence in the southern oil hub of Basra.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki described the offensive as an attempt to restore government authority in a lawless and frequently violent city. But Sadr's followers accused Maliki's Islamic Dawa party and its allies in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council of using the national security forces to weaken the cleric's movement before provincial elections in the fall.

Sadr's followers poured into the streets in parts of Baghdad and across the southern Shiite heartland, and bombarded the Green Zone with rocket and mortar fire. The ferociousness of the response appeared to take Maliki's government by surprise and forced the U.S. and British military to step up support, including repeated airstrikes that killed dozens of suspected fighters.

Two senior Shiite lawmakers allied with Maliki met with Sadr on Saturday night to negotiate an end to the impasse. In return for pulling his followers off the streets, Sadr demanded that the government end what he described as random arrests of supporters and release those detained without cause. But a member of Sadr's parliamentary bloc, Bahaa Araji, complained on state-run television today that "hundreds" of the cleric's followers had been rounded up in raids since the declaration.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz, the Iraqi Defense Ministry chief of staff, said the government would continue to pursue wanted "criminals" who had flouted a unilateral cease-fire declared by Sadr in August. But he said the cleric's instructions Sunday would help isolate the "outlaws," and predicted that the security forces would quickly wrap up operations in Basra.

U.S. commanders credit the truce with helping to bring down violence across Iraq since a troop buildup ordered by President Bush reached its height in June. But they say rogue elements of Sadr's militia have continued to wage attacks, allegedly with the backing of Iran - charges denied by Tehran.

By this morning, a tense calm had settled over Basra and most other areas of Iraq under the control of Sadr's Mahdi militia. Shops and markets opened, and the city's frightened residents emerged from their homes, in many cases for the first time in a week.

"Thank God, I see people and cars moving in the streets and the Iraqi army standing there," said one resident, who asked to be identified by the traditional nickname Abu Raed for safety reasons. "The only side that was hurt [by all this] was me and you, I mean the hopeless people."

Groups of Mahdi militiamen also appeared periodically in the streets, keeping a lookout for possible raids, but they left their weapons inside, residents said.

"In spite of my need to rest, I will sleep with one eye open," said one of the militiamen, Thair Abu Sajad. "Because we are not sure what the government might do later."

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