Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr today called for an end to the fighting between his followers and Iraqi forces in the escalating conflict that has engulfed the southern city of Basra. In a statement issued from his headquarters in Najaf, al-Sadr demanded, in return, that the government give his supporters amnesty and release any followers that are being held.
The statement was the first hopeful sign of a possible end to the conflict that the Iraqi and American governments originally billed as a battle against criminal gangs in Basra, but that escalated into a full-fledged fight with the Mahdi Army, Iraq's largest militia. On Saturday the Iraqi government, the Mahdi Army and U.S. forces all escalated the fight, and the militia's seven-month-old cease-fire seemed on the brink of total collapse.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has staked his credibility and that of his government on the Iraqi military's ability to crack down on militants in Iraq's second-largest city. He and top security ministers traveled south as the operation got underway to supervise it in person. But the pretense that the operation was simply a crackdown on ragtag criminal elements fell by wayside as militias in Basra offered stiff resistance.
Sadr's offer of peace on Sunday followed a much harsher statement against Maliki's government just a day earlier.
"Moqtada al-Sadr stopped the Mahdi Army's activities for six months, and then extended that for six more months," Haider al-Jaberi, a member of Sadr's political committee in the holy city of Najaf, told reporters on Saturday. "But the Iraqi government didn't respect that decision."
"The events in Basra today are the straw that has broken the camel's back," he continued. "To Maliki we say, the Mahdi Army has the ability to stop those who attack it, and we are prepared for that."
Jaberi, saying he was speaking on Sadr's behalf, urged fighters in Basra not to surrender their weapons unless it was to a government committed to expelling U.S. troops from Iraq. That defiance echoed the statements of a commander of one Shi'ite Islamist group in Basra, who told TIME that his fighters were prepared to use suicide tactics to defend Basra from the "occupier."
"Basra has no water, no electricity and no food. The sons of Basra have decided to form groups of martyrs to defend Basra and all of wounded Iraq," said Abu Thar, a commander of the Abu Fadil al-Abbas group, whose videos of attacks on U.S. troops are commonly found on Sadrist websites.
"This is a warning to security and government forces who follow the occupier and its collaborators," he said. "We present this statement to the government to hurry their withdrawal from Basra, or else our response will be tough, and we have selected specific targets."
It is difficult to separate real plans from bluster, but militants opposed to the government's Basra operation already struck a high-profile blow in Baghdad. Tahsin al-Sheikhli, the government's spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, was kidnapped from his home on Thursday. The al-Sharqia television station on Saturday aired an audio tape in which Sheikhli said that his fate depended on the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Basra and the opening of negotiations with Sadr's movement.
As the Mahdi Army stiffened its military and rhetorical resistance, Maliki upped the ante as well. Saturday, during a televised meeting with tribal leaders in Basra, he accused enemy fighters in Basra of being "worse than al-Qaeda." It was an inflammatory and ironic statement, since the militia, in addition to its attacks on Sunni civilians and its criminal activities, has often defended Shi'ites from Sunni terrorists when the government proved powerless to do so.
The heated rhetoric was matched by escalating military activity by American and British forces. Maj. Tom Holloway, spokesman for British troops in Basra, told TIME that American planes dropped two precision-guided bombs on a target in the city on Saturday afternoon.
"The air support was requested by Iraqi ground troops that were being attacked by that position," he said. He said that the Americans have carried out four air strikes overall since the offensive began. He also said that, at the request of Iraqi forces, British artillery fired on the al-Halaf district of Basra on Saturday.
Violence continued to escalate in Baghdad as well, with the U.S. using air power against Mahdi Army positions in the militia stronghold of Sadr City.