An angry Shiite militia commander complained Wednesday that "we were duped" into accepting a cease-fire in Sadr City — remarks that point to a potentially damaging rift within the movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The May 11 truce ended seven weeks of fierce fighting in Baghdad between U.S. and Iraqi forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which held nearly complete control of the Sadr City district.
Iraqi soldiers now have moved into most parts of Sadr City with little resistance. But the objections raised by the commander highlight apparent dissent by some Mahdi Army leaders.
A split among al-Sadr's followers — between those favoring a more militant path and others seeking compromise with Iraq's government — could threaten the relative calm in Baghdad and re-ignite Shiite-on-Shiite violence across Iraq's oil-rich south.
The commander, speaking to tribal sheiks and lawmakers loyal to al-Sadr, said that "we were duped and deceived" by the truce. "They are arresting many of us now."
The group had gathered in al-Sadr's main Baghdad office to discuss how to respond to what they consider cease-fire "violations" by Iraqi troops, such as arrests and house searches.
Some in the audience, however, took issue with the views of the commander, whose name was not made public for security reasons.
"You can be the winner without a military victory," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, a prominent Sadrist and one of two lawmakers who attended the meeting in Sadr City, home to about 2.5 million Shiites.
"We had to bow before the storm because it was uprooting everything and everyone standing in its path," he said.
Shanshal was referring to the punishing attacks by U.S. and Iraqi forces, which used tanks, helicopter gunships and Hellfire missiles fired from unmanned aircraft. The strikes killed and wounded hundreds and left parts of Sadr City in ruins.
The southern section of the district has been sealed off from the rest of Sadr City in an attempt to foil militia movements and rocket and mortar attacks on the U.S.-protected Green Zone. The battles in Sadr City were part of a wider Mahdi Army backlash to a government crackdown on armed groups launched in late March in the southern city of Basra.
Signs of opposition growing
Al-Sadr, who has been in Iran for at least a year, supported the Sadr City cease-fire, perhaps to save his Mahdi Army from further losses so it can continue the fight later.
But signs of opposition have been growing within the militia ranks. Last week, two Mahdi Army commanders said militiamen were divided over whether the cease-fire was in their interest.
They said some believed too many lives had been lost to quit the fight and allow their "enemies" to take control of Sadr City, the militia's largest stronghold.
The two commanders, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said some militia leaders had fled to Iran or southern Iraq to avoid arrest.
The U.S military claims Iran trains and arms militant Shiite militiamen loosely linked to the Mahdi Army. Tehran denies the charge.
Defending Iraqi people
The head of al-Sadr's office in Sadr City, Sheik Salman al-Freiji, suggested the truce may collapse if "violations" by the Iraqi army continue.
"There will not be any trust built between the two sides like that," al-Freiji warned. "The Mahdi Army was created to defend the Iraqi people. How can you do that without fighting the occupier?"
Shanshal, the Sadrist lawmaker, was more conciliatory. He criticized the Iraqi army for what he called heavy-handed tactics, but stressed that he did not want more fighting in Sadr City.
He suggested the government declare a 10-day grace period during which militia weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs would be handed over to the army.
"After that, they should arrest anyone who is found to possess this kind of weapons," Shanshal said.
Much of the devastation caused by the fighting is around the concrete barriers erected by U.S. troops to push militia gunners out of range of the Green Zone, which was hit by near daily salvos of rockets and mortar shells at the height of the fighting in April.
Entire blocks near the wall are now heaps of debris, twisted metal and rocks. Stores sit empty, their walls blackened and merchandise burned. Some residents on Wednesday were still hunting through the rubble to recover valuables.
Dozens of buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Some streets are strewn with the charred hulks of cars. Some stores remain shuttered, but residents are moving freely, negotiating their way on foot or in service taxis around Iraqi army tanks, Humvees and armored personnel carriers patrolling the area's dusty streets or stationed at major intersections.
New billboards compete with old ones bearing images of al-Sadr and his late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr — the namesake of the district.
Some of the new, government-funded billboards, show images of men wanted for "crimes committed against the Iraqi people" and proclaiming that "criminals use your neighborhoods to launch attacks."
'There is tension still'
But new graffiti attacks Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite. One message calls him a "traitor" and an "agent of the Americans." Another declares: "Al-Maliki is a coward."
Hymn-like songs praising al-Sadr and his late father, gunned down in 1999 by suspected Saddam Hussein agents, blare out from several stores.
But there are also signs of everyday life returning.
Municipal workers wearing bright yellow jerseys sweep streets and children play soccer on dirt fields. Women shop at outdoor food markets and men watch movies and smoke water pipes in coffee shops offering a respite from the unforgiving heat with ceiling fans powered by generators.
"Everything is going well, but there is tension still," said a woman who only wanted her nickname, Umm Sadiq, to be used. "I still have to walk a long way to work because of the traffic congestion, but at least I do so feeling safe."