RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
Just when many reports were focusing on improvements to Iraq's security, the country is facing a grave challenge, maybe the worst challenge to Iraq's security in more than a year. Shiite militiamen are fighting Iraqi government forces. On one side you have the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. On the other side is Iraq's government leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. They are battling for control of the southern city of Basra, and the fighting has spread to Baghdad, where NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is following developments. She was also on the streets in Baghdad today. And what you have you seen?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, the most intense fighting we have going on here is in eastern Baghdad's Sadr City, which is a Mehdi army stronghold. There are cars and tires burning, there's small arms fire, and clashes between the Mehdi army and the Iraqi security forces. The area has actually been sealed off, and U.S. military has gone in there to support the Iraqi forces. Also, all day we've had mortar and rocket attacks fired from Sadr City, and those have been raining down on central Baghdad. And while it appears the target is the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi parliament are, the problem is mortars and rockets are notoriously inaccurate, and so there are great plumes of black smoke rising from areas around the Green Zone, not just inside. In fact, some American forward operating bases have also been hit.
And as you said, the man at the center of all of this is Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and he called a cease-fire seven months ago, but it's always been fragile. And he claims rogue elements of the Mehdi army are the ones who are behind the current mortar attacks and the fighting.
The concern now is that the latest fighting isn't going to be confined to these so-called rogue elements, but instead it might be the beginning and the end of this cease-fire more generally. For months now, the American officials have been saying the cease-fire was a major contributor to the reduction of all this violence in Iraq, and now it appears that might be fraying.
INSKEEP: I want to figure out something here. You just mentioned rogue elements. We should remember, I guess, that Moqtada al-Sadr is seen as the leader of a very large militia, one of the largest in Iraq. There have been reports over the months and years that he doesn't have full control of everybody in that militia. Which raises the question: When the U.S. military and its allies and the Iraqi military are battling these Sadrist militias, are they actually battling Sadr, or are they actually battling Sadr's enemies within his own ranks?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's a huge gray area, which is what everybody is working in. You know, Sadr is walking a very fine line here. He's trying to balance the interests of these hard-core followers who say the Iraqi government and the Americans have used the cease-fire as an opportunity to crack down on them, while at the same time he's trying to seem like a leader who can actually control those who are loyal to him. He hasn't lifted any cease-fire officially. He's called on his followers instead to just observe a nationwide strike. He's ordered them not to go to work, not to go to school, not to open their shops. And we're hearing some reports that shopkeepers who have actually dared to defy him on this are getting shot.
New again today was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has given the militias, whether they're rogue militias or Mehdi army, 72 hours to lay down their arms. And you know, already in Baghdad you can feel the tension. The streets are absolutely deserted. Most of the shops are padlocked shut. The only people who are out on the street seem to be women who are getting water and sort of supplies. And the government has told people that they have to show up for work or they'd get penalized. But you know, the people we talked to said their offices are pretty much empty.
INSKEEP: Very briefly, what's happening in the southern city of Basra, which is where all this fighting seems to have started?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the Iraqi forces cordoned off Basra late on Monday, and then the troops rolled in yesterday. The Iraqi government has said they've gone in there to restore order, and the Mehdi army, of course, is saying they're being unfairly targeted.
You know, Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki has a lot at stake here. This is the first Iraqi-led operation like this, and it's becoming a real test of how and if the Iraqis can handle their own security. And all this is happening while the U.S. is trying to draw down its forces by July. So this latest violence is clearly complicating that.
INSKEEP: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reporting on a complicated and deadly situation in Iraq. Dina, thanks very much.