Sadr blinks in face off with Maliki

CNN:

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers to stop fighting and cooperate with Iraqi security forces Sunday, as U.S. and Iraqi forces targeted his Mehdi Army in Basra and Baghdad.

In the nine-point statement -- which was issued by his headquarters in Najaf and came a day after al-Sadr told his fighters not to surrender their weapons -- the cleric demanded that the government give his supporters amnesty and release any of his followers that are being held.

"We announce our disavowal from anyone who carries weapons and targets government institutions, charities and political party offices," said the statement that was distributed across the country and posted on Web sites linked to his movement.

The Mehdi Army entered negotiations with the Iraqi government Saturday night, said Sheikh Salah al-Obaidi, a top aide to al-Sadr. The meeting in Najaf marked the first talks between the two sides since the Iraqi government announced a crackdown on "outlaws" in Basra, al-Obaidi said.

U.S. forces targeted the cleric's Shiite militia in Baghdad as well, launching airstrikes that killed 15 people Sunday in neighborhoods known to be Mehdi Army strongholds, an Interior Ministry official said.

Two airstrikes in the Sadr City neighborhood killed nine people and wounded 14 others, and another strike in the al-Zuhor neighborhood, in northeastern Baghdad, killed six people and wounded 14 others, an Interior Ministry official said.

The U.S. military said it killed 11 militants in those same areas Saturday.

The Baghdad bombings came as Iraqi authorities extended indefinitely a strict curfew on the capital and as fighting between government troops and Shiite militants stretched into its sixth day, leaving about 400 people dead, according to reports from U.S. and Iraqi officials.

In Basra, part of southern Iraq's Shiite heartland, at least 200 people have been killed and 500 wounded in battles since Tuesday, a high-ranking security official said.

Authorities there extended a ban on pedestrian and vehicle traffic just hours before the curfew was to expire Sunday morning.

Al-Maliki compared the outlaws, on whom the government is cracking down, to al Qaeda and said troops would not leave Basra "until security is restored."

"We will continue to stand up to these gangs in every inch of Iraq," he said. "It is unfortunate that we used to use say these very words about al Qaeda, when all the while, there were people among us who are worse than al Qaeda."

Al-Maliki met Saturday in Basra with area tribal leaders and other prominent figures, who expressed support for the government's effort to "save Basra from criminal gangs," according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

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Others are reporting that Sadr has lost his luster with the Iraqi Shia.

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The differences represent a shift in the war, whose early years were punctuated by uprisings against Americans by a vast, devoted group of al-Sadr's followers, who were largely respected by Shiites. As their tactics veered into protection rackets, oil smuggling and other scams, al-Sadr's followers began to resemble Mafia thugs more than religious warriors, splintering and forming their own gangs and networks, many beyond al-Sadr's direct control.

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This has to be deeply disappointing the the anti war left in the US who saw the Maliki offensive as another excuse for failure in Iraq which they are desperate to achieve. But if the Maliki offensive succeeds, it is another bitter defeat for Democrats who want to lose in Iraq. For Maliki and the Iraqi government it is not only a huge victory over a political foe, it also gives them greater control over the flow of oil out and money into the country.

Cordesman gives an example of the hand wringing over the current confrontation calling it a war Itaq can't win. Uhh, never mind.

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