In the aftermath of the battle for Basra, the mood was quieter in Iraq as the two main contenders took pains to maintain the relative calm since the fighting stopped. The government forces of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Mahdi Army of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr kept gingerly away from each other. Throughout Baghdad and Basra on Friday, there was only sporadic violence, with attacks targeting Iraqi military units and the police.
But, even on a quiet Friday, Maliki may again be buckling to Mahdi Army pressure. The Prime Minister called for a halt on military raids against militants in Basra and other areas of southern Iraq and in the Mahdi Army strongholds of Baghdad, effectively ending for the time being the largest Iraqi government military offensive to date. "All pursuits and raids in all areas will be stopped. Those who take up arms will face the law," Maliki said in a statement.
Coming in the wake of the resolution to last week's fighting in Basra, this latest move only confirms to many Sadr's breath of power and the limits of Maliki's. Three days into his poorly executed military campaign on Basra initially commended by Washington as a decisive show of strength by the government the Prime Minister extended by ten days a deadline for militants to lay down their arms. Now, despite what the U.S. Embassy and Coalition forces have called a successful run in Basra, Maliki appears to have eased the pressure off the Mahdi Army entirely.
Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh demurred, explaining to TIME: "We are giving armed individuals one more chance to hand over their weapons, giving them a chance not to break the law." He would not comment on what motivated Maliki's latest move. But the office of Moqtada al-Sadr had complained multiple times of government violations of the terms of last week's negotiated truce, and hinted at the potential for a relapse if those terms are not respected.
On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told reporters that the government's initiative in Basra had been a positive development, but also admitted that "gains here [in Iraq] are fragile." He said Maliki was "pretty sober" on his return from Basra, and was "not coming back in any kind of triumphal spirit."
Maliki's statement on Friday came amid Shi'ite demonstrations against the U.S. in Baghdad's Mahdi Army-dominated neighborhoods of Sadr City and Shula, and after a recent call by al-Sadr for a massive demonstration in Najaf, now scheduled for Baghdad on April 9. Crocker allayed fears that Sadr's provocative call for a million-man march would lead to renewed violence. "Millions of people converged on [the holy city of] Karbala for the Arba'een [a Shi'a holiday] in very peaceful conditions. I think that's what Iraqis now expect and want to see," he said.
Crocker's sentiment was echoed by Emad Mohammed Klantor, a close associate of Sadr, who told TIME that the demonstrations were indeed aimed at the U.S., which the party continues to view as the primary enemy. "But I do not expect the demonstrations to be violent. God willing, they will be peaceful," he said.
But another Sadr ally, parliamentarian Ghofran al-Saidi, was far less willing to ease the pressure off the Iraqi government. She told TIME that despite Maliki's apparent act of goodwill, a blockade was still in effect around Sadr City Friday night, preventing the injured from reaching hospitals, and she saw little change after Maliki's statement. "There is a real resistance to this government among the people," she said.