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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: PACT WITH MAHDI ARMY

Accord reached with Sadr militia

But the government and the cleric's side disagree on details of the pact to end clashes in Baghdad district.

May 11, 2008|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government and representatives of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr said Saturday that they had struck a deal to halt weeks of fighting in a Baghdad district. But disagreements over the content of the accord cast doubt on whether it would end the bloodshed.

Word of a possible breakthrough came as the Iraqi military announced the start of a long-promised crackdown in the northern city of Mosul, described by the U.S. military as the last urban stronghold of Sunni Arab militants loyal to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Iraqi police and soldiers in Mosul fanned out in several northern neighborhoods, searching homes for weapons and fighters as residents waited anxiously. There were no immediate reports of clashes.

The extent of the deal with Sadr's supporters, which was brokered by lawmakers and is scheduled to take effect today, quickly became murky Saturday.

Under the terms announced by Sadr's lead negotiator, Salah Obeidi, members of the cleric's Mahdi Army militia would put down their weapons and allow government forces to pursue individuals wanted in attacks, provided there is a warrant. In return, the government forces would stop what Obeidi called "random" raids and open blocked roads into the cleric's Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City.

Obeidi said the document made no mention of the government's demand that the militia disband and surrender its medium- and heavy-grade weapons -- issues that the cleric's representatives were not prepared to discuss.

But Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, said all sides had agreed that only the government is authorized to maintain an army and enforce the law.

"The government has the right to raid and search any place that is suspected to contain heavy and medium weapons," he said in a statement.

Obeidi said the agreement allows only Iraqi forces to conduct raids in Sadr City, not the U.S. military. But Dabbagh told The Times that the deal did not address the role of foreign troops, a point underscored by Hadi Amri, a member of the ruling alliance's negotiating team.

"There is no point that prevents the Americans from performing military operations in Sadr City," Amri said. "The U.S. forces are and will continue bombing . . . the places that are launching mortar rounds or rockets at their bases and/or the Green Zone."

Even if the discrepancies can be ironed out, it remains to be seen whether the gunmen who claim allegiance to Sadr will honor the accord.

In public, U.S. military officials blame the fighting in Sadr City on breakaway factions that have disregarded the unilateral cease-fire that Sadr declared in August. But commanders privately concede that the uprising in Sadr City has become more widespread in recent weeks.

The U.S. military said it had not been informed of Saturday's truce. Its forces moved into the southeastern section of Sadr City last month in a bid to stop the barrage of rocket and mortar fire that has been launched at the Green Zone, the fortified enclave that includes the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government headquarters.

U.S. helicopters and tanks trade fire almost daily with Shiite militiamen in Sadr City's narrow alleys, and civilians often are caught in the cross-fire. Hundreds of people have died in the weeks of fighting. Officials at two hospitals in Sadr City said they had received 17 bodies and treated 91 wounded since late Friday.

The violence erupted when Maliki, a Shiite, launched a crackdown against militias in late March, initially focusing on the southern city of Basra.

Maliki said the operation was aimed at restoring the rule of law. But Sadr's followers accused their rivals in Maliki's Shiite alliance of using the crackdown to weaken the cleric's movement before provincial elections set for Oct. 1.

The drawn-out fight against Shiite militiamen delayed the start of the Mosul offensive, which the government has promised will rout Sunni insurgents believed to have regrouped there after being driven out of Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar provinces.

Maj. Margaret Kageleiry, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said the operation was Iraqi but American forces would provide advice, guidance and support as requested.

In other developments, the U.S. military announced the death of a soldier Friday of noncombat-related injuries. At least 4,074 U.S. personnel have died since the start of the war in 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondents in Najaf and Mosul contributed to this report.

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