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IRAQ

Basra returning to normal after Sadr truce

4 min

Life has returned to normal in southern Iraqi cities after Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers off the streets. Week- long clashes with security forces killed at least 461 people. Lucas Menget reports.

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Gun-toting fighters of hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr melted away from Iraqi streets on Monday after week-long clashes with security forces that killed at least 461 people.

Following six days of intense fighting with security forces, Sadr on Sunday reined in his fighters, signalling an end to the firefights which have also wounded more than 1,100 people across the country.

AFP correspondents in Baghdad and Basra said the militants had disappeared on Monday and that fighting which had rocked the two cities and several other Shiite regions since last Tuesday had died down.

The Sadr movement in the capital confirmed fighters from the cleric's feared Mahdi Army militia were no longer deployed on the streets, including in their bastion of Sadr City in east Baghdad.

"The militants have disappeared from Sadr City and its neighbouring areas and my information is that Sadr's order is being implemented everywhere," the Baghdad spokesman for Sadr's movement, Salman al-Fraiji, told AFP.

He said US and Iraqi forces were on Monday "randomly arresting and raiding houses" in Sadr City and the cities of Diwaniyah, Karbala and Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad.

Iraqi commander Major General Abdul Aziz told a news conference that the security forces were arresting only those "criminals for whom we have warrants."

Haider al-Asadi, a fighter from the Mahdi Army in Sadr City, said all the militants were "now sitting in their homes."

"But we are ready, should the Americans come inside our district, to fight. We have enough IEDs (improvised explosive devices) for them. If they come, we will defend ourselves."

Asadi said the US troops were on the edge of the neighbourhood and had deployed snipers on the rooftops of houses.

Witnesses said pedestrians and vehicles were now back on the streets of Baghdad after the curfew was lifted in the capital, although a vehicle ban remained in force in Sadr City and two other Shiite areas, Kadhimiyah and Shuala.

"Life is getting back to normal in Sadr City," said Ahmed Suhail, a resident of the sprawling district of some two million Shiites. "Most shops are open and there are no militiamen in the streets."

The curfew in Basra was also eased on Monday, but the authorities said it would remain in force at night.

The clashes in the port city have left at least 251 people dead and 600 wounded, according to Iraqi interior ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf.

The overall countrywide death toll from the clashes touched 461, including 140 in Baghdad which saw another 500 wounded.

An AFP correspondent in the southern port city said Iraqi troops were deployed on Monday in most parts of Basra and there were no reports of any new clashes overnight.

He said several shops were also open and people were queueing outside them. Offices, colleges and schools remained closed, however.

Sheikh Ali al-Saedi, a member of Sadr's office in Basra, confirmed the fighters were withdrawing from the city's streets.

General Aziz said that by Sunday security forces had managed to clear five areas of Basra which were known Mahdi Army strongholds -- Al-Najibiyah, Al-Makkal, Al-Ashhar, Al-Zubair and Qarmat Ali.

On Sunday, Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets while the government agreed not to pursue those involved in the fighting provided they stowed their weapons.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said on Monday that Sadr's declaration will "isolate the groups who are trying to abuse the reputation of Sadr.

"Those who do not withdraw from the streets, we will consider them outlaws and not from the group of Sadr," he told a joint news conference with Aziz, adding that the crackdown in Basra will "continue till security is restored."

The fighting in Shiite areas broke out on Tuesday as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered his troops to attack Mahdi Army strongholds in Basra, the southern oil hub, saying they were infested by "lawless gunmen."

The fighting quickly spread to other Shiite areas, flaring in particular in Sadr City.

Maliki, himself a Shiite who has been directing the assault from inside Basra, said he hoped Sadr's order to his militia would "contribute to the stability of the situation."

Meanwhile a volley of rockets smashed into Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on Monday causing at least five casualties, including two American soldiers and an Iraqi army major, a witness told AFP. None was thought to be seriously wounded.
 

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