BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A deal to end fighting between militias and U.S.-backed security forces in the Baghdad stronghold of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was largely holding on Sunday, despite some sporadic fighting.
The U.S. military said it would scale back operations to see if gunmen obeyed the truce, but a spokesman said troops would target militants who tried to launch attacks from the Sadr City slum. U.S. troops killed one gunman on Sunday in a clash.
Residents in Sadr City said small clashes flared on Sunday, a day after Shi’ite political factions agreed to end weeks of fighting that killed hundreds of people.
The conflict between security forces and gunmen has trapped Sadr City’s 2 million people in a war zone since late March, when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on militias in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra.
Sadr City remained tense, with shops on the main streets closed, although some stores in side streets were reopening. U.S. military aircraft hovered overhead.
“This agreement really doesn’t change anything for us,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad. “If anyone’s firing mortars, rockets or planting an I.E.D (improvised explosive device), we’re going to kill him.”
Deals to end battles between gunmen loyal to the anti-U.S. cleric and security forces have collapsed in the past. It is also unclear how much control Sadr has over many of the Mehdi Army militiamen who claim allegiance to him in Sadr City.
Some residents were skeptical the truce agreed by Sadr’s parliamentary bloc and the ruling Shi’ite alliance would last.
Adil al-Itabi said he had moved his family out of Sadr City to escape the violence.
“I am not going to rush them back because I’m not convinced the peace will stick. The government and the Mehdi Army are so opposed, this deal could fail at any moment,” he said.
U.S. Brigadier-General Mike Milano told a news conference that gunmen had fired at least 1,000 rockets and mortars since the fighting first broke out on March 23. Many were aimed at the Green Zone diplomatic and government compound.
Milano rejected aid agency fears of a humanitarian crisis.
“We don’t see a humanitarian crisis. The markets around Sadr City are open, officials are identifying problems with water and sewers for repair, trash is being cleaned up,” he said.
The government said the deal would enable security forces to deliver aid to residents, after a 4-day period giving militants time to quit their positions and clear bombs from roads.
“This will help us deliver … aid and food,” said Tahseen al-Sheikhli, civilian spokesman for security in Baghdad.
“Sadrists must show cooperation (by) handing over wanted people, laying down arms.”
The government says the deal calls on militiamen to hand in their medium and heavy weapons. These include rocket launchers.
Aid agencies welcomed the truce but warned Sadr City would not recover from the conflict overnight, as services such as education would take time to be restored.
“It’s not a case of everything will go back to normal after a ceasefire,” said Claire Hajaj, spokeswoman of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Iraq program.
“The damage is done… Schools are damaged and parents have been keeping children away because of insecurity. They’re … not going to be rushing back,” she said, adding some schools were still being used by militiamen to stock weapons.
Gunmen had been battling U.S. and Iraqi forces nearly every night in Sadr City, making life a misery for its inhabitants. Several thousand have fled but most have stayed in their homes.
Sadr threatened last month to formally scrap a truce he imposed on the Mehdi Army in August. A few weeks later he told the militia to observe the truce — which has at times seemed irrelevant — leaving Iraqis guessing over his true intentions.