Iraq

No End in Sight to Sadr City Battles

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Fresh fighting in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City puts new strains on an already fragile cease-fire ordered by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. U.S. casualties are mounting as fighting spreads.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today in testimony on Capitol Hill, General David Petraeus talked about reasons that violence has gone down in Iraq. The U.S. commander referred to the cease-fire ordered by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He leads the Mahdi army.

As Petraeus spoke, Sadr was threatening to formally call off that cease-fire. And today, cease-fire or not, fighting continued between Sadr's militia and Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad, Sadr City.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Baghdad.

ERIC WESTERVELT: In a statement today, Sadr's office declared, quote, "If it is required to lift the cease-fire in order to carry out our goals, objectives, doctrines and religious principles, we will do that," end quote. In reality, Sadr's cease-fire order is already in tatters. For two weeks, his militiamen have battled U.S. and Iraqi forces in Basra and more recently, in Baghdad.

But formally lifting the nationwide order, if he does, would certainly unleash wider clashes. Sadr's cease-fire order, issued last summer and renewed in February, is one key factor that's helped reduce sectarian killings and overall violence in Iraq in recent months.

In Baghdad today, Sheik Salah Obaidi, a senior Sadr aide and spokesman, slammed the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki. Obaidi says the prime minister's recent move - threatening to ban Sadr's movement from politics unless he disbands his militia, the Mahdi army - is unnecessarily provocative.

Mr. SHEIK SALAH AL-OBAIDI (Senior Sadr Aide and Spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr): To impose such decisions, it is something pushing the country into more crisis, more that - maybe bloody crisis. We do not like any kind of those exercises(ph) to appear or happen, but we are sure that there are several parties participating in the government, want such crisis in order to weaken our Mahdi army, in order not to go through the next elections in October.

WESTERVELT: Sadr's supporters hoped to expand their power base in those upcoming provincial elections. Also today, Sadr postponed a massive protest march he'd called for tomorrow on the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces. The Iraqi government nonetheless announced an all-day ban on car traffic in Baghdad tomorrow.

In recent days, dozens of Iraqis in Sadr City have been killed in ongoing fighting in the sprawling Shiite slum, home to two and a half million Iraqis.

The fighting is raging outside of Mohammed Shelfud's(ph) front door. We reached him today on a cell phone in Sadr City.

Mr. MOHAMMED SHELFUD: (Through translator) I swear to God the shooting is everywhere with different weapons. I'm sitting here while the mortars are falling everywhere. We are imprisoned here for the 12th day, a lack of electricity and a lack of water.

WESTERVELT: The fighting also has taken a heavy toll on U.S. forces. Eleven American soldiers were killed in combat in the last three days. According to figures from the U.S. military, the number of daily attacks in Baghdad rose in March to 23 a day. That's up from an average of nine a day in Baghdad from November through February.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Baghdad.

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