By Ahmed Abdullah
March 31, 2008
After six days of fierce
clashes, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army
to withdraw from the streets of the southern Iraqi city of
Basra and other areas, signalling an end to the fighting
that has claimed the lives of more than 320 people across
AFP, Mahdi Army fighters
disappeared from the streets of Basra and Baghdad on Monday.
The Sadr movement in Baghdad
also confirmed that Mahdi fighters are now "sitting in their
"The Sadr movement and Jaish
al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) are committed to the order of Sadr. We
are implementing the order of Sadr," said Hamdallah al-Rikabi,
spokesman for the cleric's movement in west Baghdad.
Sadr's order came as the
Iraqi government agreed not to pursue those involved in the
fighting provided they stowed their weapons.
Ordering Mahdi Army fighters
to cease the fighting, Sadr distanced himself from those
"who carry weapons and target the government, the offices of
the government and its parties".
Maliki, himself a Shia, said
he hoped Sadr's order would "contribute to the stability of
Despite Maliki's welcome of
Sadr's statement, this is not victory. The clashes weakened
the Iraqi government and strengthened Sadr movement.
Occupation forces in Iraq definitely do not like this.
To show that its operation
was not a complete failure, the Iraqi army said that it had
killed at least 120 fighters and wounded around 450.
But doctors estimate that
the fighting had killed at least 320 people, raising
concerns that the gap between the two figures is accounted
for by civilian casualties.
One Basra official told an
Arabic satellite channel that after two days of fighting,
more than 40 civilians had been killed. A photographer for
the AFP news agency said in the aftermath of an air strike,
he saw a woman and two children among eight bodies. Local
people said more bodies - civilians - were inside four
buildings damaged by the strike.
The British military did not
confirm nor deny the details of the air strike or the
reports of civilian casualties in general.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military
said on Monday its troops had killed 41 "criminals" in
Baghdad, including 25 who died when a suspected mortar team
But as usual, it is hard to
tell whether those killed were civilians or fighters.
According to an editorial on
the BBC, the fighting that had rocked Basra and
Baghdad since last Tuesday raised questions over the role of
British forces in Iraq, who are based just outside Basra.
In December, the British army handed security over to Iraqi
troops. Back then, the UK's Defence Secretary, Des Browne,
said: "It has been a challenging journey, but we are not yet
at the end of the road. Our role in Basra is changing to one
of overwatch, but our commitment to Iraq is undimmed."
But that committment was
tested as the fighting intensified between Iraqi security
forces and the Mahdi Army in Basra.
Many analysts are asking why
thousands of highly-trained British soldiers watched the
conflict from their camp outside the city.
The British army did not
send a large ground force to aid Iraqi troops. Only a small
number of U.S. and British special forces were on the
ground, coordinating air support for Iraqi troops.
But that was not enough. It
was clear that the Iraqi army was struggling to contain the
situation. Iraq's Defense Minister even admitted the
strength of Mahdi Army had been underestimated.
It seems that the British
army failed to live up to its obligation towards the Iraqis.
In theory at least, Britain's "strategic overwatch" allows
UK troops to intervene on the ground if the Iraqis are in
trouble. But this did not happen.
Perhaps that "overwatch" for
the British has meant literally having to watch amateur
video on satellite TV of armed Mahdi fighters celebrating
their victory over Iraqi troops in the streets of Basra.
The British army says it
didn't intervene because the Iraqis did not need help. The
military's spokesman in Basra, Maj Tom Holloway, told the
BBC: "This is an Iraqi-planned, led and executed
mission. They are standing on their own two feet... It's an
indication of the Iraqi government's confidence in their own
armed forces that they are able to conduct this operation
with the levels of British and Coalition support that we are
currently giving them."
"Fighting in an urban
environment is not an easy thing to do. It's the hardest
form of warfare and taxes command and control and the basics
of fighting to the most extreme degree," Major Holloway
Why then did Iraq's Prime
Minister Nouri Maliki initially give the Mahdi Army until
this weekend to surrender? It was clear that his position
was weak when he later extended that deadline to 8 April.
Many analysts describe the
current situation as a stalemate after Sadr pulled his
fighters from the streets of Basra and other cities. So it's
not a ceasefire, and certainly not a surrender.
Whether a stalemate or a
ceasefire, the fighting could easily erupt again and the
question would remain unanswered: what is the British army
doing in southern Iraq?