BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – Life appeared to be returning to normal in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Monday after Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers off the streets, but clashes continued in Baghdad.
Sadr called the halt on Sunday, nearly a week after a crackdown on his followers in Basra led to Iraq’s worst fighting for months, spreading across the Shi’ite south and the capital.
A Reuters reporter in Basra said Sadr’s masked Mehdi Army militia fighters, who had been out on the streets for most of the past week, were no longer to be seen in many areas.
“We have control of the towns around Basra and also inside the city. There are no clashes anywhere in Basra. Now we are dismantling roadside bombs from the streets,” said Major-General Mohammed Jawan Huweidi, commander of the Iraqi Army’s 14th division.
Shops were beginning to reopen, some for the first time in nearly a week. Schools were due to reopen on Tuesday, the military operations room in Basra said.
Residents expressed anger at the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for unleashing the violence.
“Today the situation is good. The battle is over. But Maliki did not achieve what he wanted. He ruined Basra,” said grocer Numan Taha, 40, reopening his shop in the Hayaniya neighborhood, a Sadr stronghold.
In Baghdad, where a three-day curfew was largely lifted, the truce seemed tenuous at best. Explosions struck the “Green Zone” government and diplomatic compound in what police said was a volley of six mortar bombs. Sirens wailed and a recorded voice ordered people to take cover.
U.S. embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo confirmed the attack but said she had no details of any casualties.
U.S. military spokesman Major Mark Cheadle said there were also clashes in several Baghdad neighborhoods early on Monday.
U.S. forces called in at least three helicopter strikes in Baghdad late on Sunday after Sadr’s ceasefire, including one in which they said they killed 25 militants who attacked a convoy struck by a roadside bomb.
“The attacks haven’t stopped. There’s still a lot of enemy out there, we’re not going to quit protecting the populace,” Cheadle said. But he said the tempo of fighting in the capital has eased somewhat over the past two days and U.S. forces expected it to decline further.
“They were looking for an excuse to stop fighting,” he said. “They don’t like facing us because they get killed.”
U.S. and Iraqi security forces continued to seal off Sadr City, a sprawling slum of about 2 million people that is Sadr’s main stronghold and which has witnessed some of the worst fighting in the past week.
Sadr announced the surprise ceasefire after talks behind the scenes with parties in Maliki’s government. As part of the deal, Sadr’s aides say, authorities are to end roundups of his followers and implement an amnesty to free prisoners.
The government has also said it wants militants to hand over heavy and medium weapons. Sadr’s aides say his followers have no heavy weapons and will keep their light arms to defend themselves against the U.S. “occupation.”
Maliki launched the crackdown last Tuesday in Basra, which controls Iraq’s only sea port and 80 percent of its oil revenues. The government has long worried about rival militia fighting for control of its streets, and portrayed the crackdown as an attempt to assert state authority in a lawless city.
But the militia are also tied to political parties, and Sadr’s followers saw the crackdown as an attempt to subdue them ahead of provincial elections due by October.
Sadr’s followers revere him passionately, but it has never been entirely clear how tight a grip he has over them once they take to the streets. A ceasefire he ordered last year did not halt attacks completely but led to a sharp decrease in violence.
But the latest truce may be more difficult to impose, coming after a week of fighting in which hundreds of people were killed and anger stoked to the boiling point.
“We respect the orders of Moqtada al-Sadr, but at the same time the government should also respect his statement,” said Abu Munadhil al-Tamimi, a Mehdi Army group leader in Basra’s Tamimiya neighborhood.
“It was a carnage Maliki conducted, along with his soldiers. There was killing in the streets of our neighborhood,” said Basra resident Ahmed Sattar, 25.
Jabbar Sabhan, 43, a civil servant, said he was glad the violence had died down but was doubtful the calm would hold.
“I didn’t go to work today. It is true that there are no clashes, gunmen or explosions, but the situation is still dangerous. I don’t trust the words of politicians.”