BAGHDAD, (AP) – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed Tuesday that a week-old operation against Shiite militias has been a “success” despite a cease-fire that did not disarm the gunmen and left him politically battered.
The Shiite leader stopped short of declaring an end to the offensive that began a week ago Tuesday in the southern city of Basra, sparking retaliatory clashes in Baghdad and other southern cities, and criticism that his government was unprepared for the fierce backlash.
Militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, thanked his fighters for “defending your people, your land and your honor.”
Sporadic fighting continued in Baghdad and Basra, but the cities otherwise were calm two days after the radical Shiite cleric called on his fighters to stand down in a bid to end the widening conflict.
A U.S. helicopter fired a missile at gunmen attacking ground forces in the Baghdad militia stronghold of Sadr City, killing six militants, the military said. Iraqi police and witnesses said three civilians were killed in the strike.
Amid the tensions, Britain’s Defense Secretary Des Browne said a plan to withdraw around 1,500 troops based mainly around Basra has been postponed. Browne said it would be “prudent” to pause any further reductions while the situation was unfolding.
Ground forces called for the airstrike in Sadr City after gunmen fired at a tank and rolled a burning tire in their direction, said Maj. Mark Cheadle, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
Iraqi police said U.S. troops opened fire them hours later in Sadr City, killing three unarmed men and wounding six people, including two children. Cheadle denied U.S. forces were involved in such an incident.
The fighting in the capital and cities to the south has helped make March the deadliest month for Iraqis since last summer, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
Al-Maliki insisted in the statement issued by his office that the operation had achieved “security, stability and success” in Basra.
He announced a seven-point plan to stabilize the area, including recruiting 10,000 more police and army forces from local tribes and moving to enhance public services for the embattled population of some 2 million.
The prime minister’s office later issued another statement asserting that the offensive was “legitimate.”
“We fulfilled our security commitments and responsibilities, which paved the way toward law enforcement and security,” he said.
At least 1,247 Iraqis, including civilians and security personnel, had been killed as of Monday, according to figures compiled from police and U.S. military reports. The figure was nearly double the tally for February and the biggest monthly toll since August, when 1,956 people died violently.
Iraqi government figures showed a similar trend, with at least 1,079 people were killed in March — 923 civilians, 156 security forces.
That was an increase from 718 the month before, including 633 civilians and 85 security forces, according to figures compiled from data provided by officials at the health, interior and defense ministries.
Underscoring the fragility of the peace agreement, Harith al-Edhari, the director of al-Sadr’s office in Basra, demanded the government stop continuing random raids and detentions against the cleric’s Mahdi Army militia.
Al-Edhari’s complaint followed a raid by Iraqi commandos on the house of a wanted Mahdi Army battalion leader that prompted clashes in a northern section of the city, although the suspect was not home at the time.
In ordering his militia to stop fighting on Sunday, al-Sadr also demanded concessions from the Iraqi government, including an end to the “illegal raids and arrests” of his followers and the release of all detainees who have not been convicted of any offenses.
“God bless you and thanks to you from God and not from me for your enduring hardship and for your patience, obedience and being side by side defending your people and your land and your honor,” al-Sadr said Monday.
“And greetings for mujahedden (holy fighters) who do not leave a secure place for the enemy,” he added, referring to the battle against U.S. forces.
The confrontation enabled al-Sadr to show that he remains a powerful force capable of challenging the Iraqi government, the Americans and mainstream Shiite parties that have sought for years to marginalize him. And the outcome cast doubt on President Bush’s assessment that the Basra battle was “a defining moment” in the history “of a free Iraq.”
With gunmen again off the streets, a round-the-clock curfew imposed in Baghdad last week was lifted at 6 a.m. Monday, except in Sadr City and two other Shiite neighborhoods. Streets of the capital buzzed with traffic and commerce.
Iraqis also cautiously emerged on the streets of Basra, with peddlers selling fruit from stalls and men cleaning up huge piles of trash from the roadsides.
Women shrouded in black and children also lined up to collect water and food from aid workers after days of curfew.