The security situation in Iraq is set to improve further after powerful Shia political leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced a six-month extension to his militia’s unilateral ceasefire on 22 February, analysts said.
[Read this report in Arabic]
This bodes well for the economy, ordinary civilians, some two million internally displaced persons, and over two million refugees living abroad, who may now begin to trickle back home.
Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army was formed in the turbulent months following the US-led invasion in 2003, and launched two major uprisings against US-led forces in 2004.
“This step has multiple advantages for al-Sadr. It enables him to present himself as a political figure interested in reducing violence for all Iraqis, and as a more popular alternative to other Shia rivals,” said Abdul-Hadi Nasser Joda who lectures in international law at the University of Basra.
“With the remarkable security achievements in Baghdad and southern Iraq, al-Sadr wants to make himself a player that the USA and the Iraqi government must continue to deal with... He can always go back to fighting if he wants to play that card,” Joda said.
Al-Sadr’s main rival
Al-Sadr’s main rival is the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the largest Shia political party, led by influential Shia religious leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. The Mahdi Army and al-Hakim’s Badr Brigade have been engaged in a bitter power struggle in Iraq’s oil-rich south.
Al-Sadr first declared his initial unilateral cease-fire in August 2007 when he ordered his followers not to attack Iraqi and US-led forces, threatening to expel any militia members who did not comply.
“This cease-fire will definitely add to the security gains,” said Haqi Youssif Khalil, an analyst at the University of Baghdad.
“Al-Sadr’s initiative can be interpreted in another way as well: He wants to punish the special groups within his militia that have started their own revenge killings, kidnappings and attacks against Iraqi and US forces,” Khalil added.
"Special groups" is the term the US army uses for Shia factions that it says have broken away from al-Sadr and which are backed by Iran. Iran has denied backing such groups.
Brig-Gen Mike Milano, a senior US military official tasked with restoring security to Baghdad, said on 23 February that al-Sadr’s extension of the ceasefire was "welcome news”.
|US troops on patrol in Sadr City, Baghdad|
He said nearly 80 percent of the capital's districts were now considered free of organised extremist activity. In his upbeat assessment during a press conference, Milano said a year-long operation by the US military and Iraqi security forces to bring security to the capital had improved the situation.
According to Milano, when the operation began, only 20 percent of Baghdad's 479 districts (`mahallas’) were relatively free of organised violence.
Milano said that since June 2007 there had been a 75 percent decrease in attacks in Baghdad, a 90 percent decrease in civilian casualties, and an 85 percent decrease in murders.
Immediately after al-Sadr’s announcement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement saying “the al-Sadr bloc is an essential cornerstone in the political process and in the new Iraq."