Rebel Cleric Urges Followers to Drop Arms Muqtada al-Sadr is urging his fighters off the streets, after six days of violence that have left dozens dead in Basra and Baghdad. In response, the Iraqi government says it will lift a curfew in many parts of the capital.
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Rebel Cleric Urges Followers to Drop Arms

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Rebel Cleric Urges Followers to Drop Arms

Rebel Cleric Urges Followers to Drop Arms

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

In Iraq today a surprise announcement: radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on his followers to lay down their arms and stop fighting government forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says the new ceasefire call was a step in the right direction but the Iraqi government said it would not stop its six-day-old offensive in the southern town of Basra to rid the city of what it's called criminals.

The recent violence in Basra and the capital, Baghdad, has claimed dozens of lives. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from Baghdad. And, Lourdes, why now? Why did Moqtada al-Sadr make this announcement today?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, today's announcement really did come as a surprise to many, Andrea. What you have to remember is this was essentially a battle between the two most important Shiite groups in Iraq, both of whom will be competing for power in the upcoming provincial elections in October. And both of whom have militias at their disposal.

The feeling is that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used this offensive for political purposes. There are many militias in Basra but they went after the armed wing of their main political rival in the upcoming elections, the Mehdi Army. I don't think that Moqtada al-Sadr wanted to have an all-out confrontation with the U.S. military.

And it was increasingly being drawn in. He's keeping his eye on the prize, which is gaining political power in the elections in October. So when he saw the U.S. military try to move in and try and bolster Nouri al-Maliki's forces, he may have backed down for that reason.

SEABROOK: And what's been the response of the Mahdi Army?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, they're still fighting. But it's less now. Just after the announcement there was another barrage of rocket fire targeting the green zone. We've seen that just relentlessly over the past six years. In Sadr City, which is the vast Shiite slum here, things have quieted down as well. But no one is handing over their weapons. There isn't even any discussion of that.

And some of the Mahdi Army commanders we've spoken to you expressed some dissatisfaction with the order but it seems that mostly his fighters are obeying the new orders for now.

SEABROOK: I understand there's news that the curfew in Baghdad will be lifted, at least in most neighborhoods.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. Provisionally the curfew will be lifted. It's been very difficult for many of the residents in Baghdad for the past three days of around-the-clock curfew. I went out and spoke to some of Baghdad's residents and, you know, they were pretty much staying at home, going out briefly on foot just to get whatever provisions they could and they heading directly home again.

So it was very, very challenging for people, and I'm certain that many of Baghdad residents here will welcome the fact that this curfew will be lifted.

SEABROOK: What are the implications of this for the United States and their strategy in Iraq?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This week has clearly shown how tenuous security is in Iraq and how quickly things can turn. And I think it shows how the military solution in Iraq was not really backed up by political movement. So despite the surge and the increased security that it temporarily brought, the political dimension, you know, moved into actual street violence and really reversed a lot of the gains that we've seen over the past year.

The only bright spot, I think, for the U.S. military at this point is that the fighting did not spread and become sectarian again. We did not see Sunni on Shiite violence. The violence was Shiite on Shiite. And while that might be cold comfort, at least it is some kind of progress.

SEABROOK: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. Lourdes, thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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