For the first time in weeks Sadr City saw no fighting Sunday, day one of yet another hastily brokered cease-fire between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and the Shi'ite Mahdi Army militia.
Word of the pact emerged Saturday night, when an aide to Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr said a deal had been reached to end roughly two months of street fighting in eastern Baghdad. Soon afterward, U.S. and Iraqi officials endorsed the agreement, which came as Iraqi forces working with U.S. troops were signaling plans for a new push to break from areas where they had remained stuck for weeks. Details of the cease-fire remain largely unclear beyond an immediate end to the battles that have displaced thousands of residents from the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a vast slum home to more than 2 million people.
In announcing the deal, al-Sadr aide Sheik Salah al-Obeidi said the agreement, "stipulates that the Mahdi Army will stop fighting in Sadr City and will stop displaying arms in public. In return, the government will stop random raids against al-Sadr followers and open all closed roads that lead to Sadr City."
Al-Obeidi, who issued a statement from the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, added: "This document does not call for disbanding al-Mahdi Army or laying down their arms."
The fact that a leading figure in al-Sadr's ranks announced the deal and pointedly rejected the Iraqi government's key demand to disarm suggests that the cleric is still controlling the agenda tactically and politically despite the most serious challenge his power the Iraqi government could muster. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set out to break the back of the Mahdi Army in March, when he launched an offensive against areas the militia controls in the southern city of Basra. The Mahdi Army fought Iraqi forces to a standstill there while unleashing a daily hail of rockets and mortars on the Green Zone that left al-Maliki's government effectively the ones under siege. And when U.S. and Iraqi troops tried to press into Sadr City to chase the militia's mortar men and rocketeers, they barely managed to establish a foothold on the southern edge of the neighborhood before the situation stalemated.
How long this new cease-fire will last is uncertain. Al-Sadr declared a cease-fire unilaterally last year only to see al-Maliki ignore it with the initial strike in Basra. But one thing is clear: the latest pause in the running fight between al-Sadr and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government offers no visible solutions to the problems at the root of the conflict. Al-Maliki wants to disband the Mahdi Army, or at least de-fang it, before provincial elections in the fall. The bloody nose the Mahdi Army gave al-Maliki in the latest crisis shows how unlikely that is. Above all, al-Sadr still wants the Americans to go. But the inability of Iraqi forces to operate independently during the recent fighting shows how unlikely that is - unless a new White House decides to reduce military support for an Iraqi government still unable to face down its toughest foe.