The New York Times's James Glanz writes that calm is returning to Basra, as the Mahdi Army has melted away and the Iraqi Army and police units taking over neighborhoods formerly held by the militia. Also, the Maliki government dodged questions on whether it would honor Moqtada al-Sadr's demands that ended the fighting. This being Iraq, details on the negotiations are murky, with some officials saying Maliki was directly involved in the talks and agreed to al-Sadr's demands in advance. Others said the government wasn't involved directly and that al-Sadr's demands wouldn't be taken seriously. (Bluster, perhaps?) Rockets and mortar shells continued to rain down on the Green Zone, and an American soldier died Monday from a roadside bomb attack. Another soldier died from wounds suffered March 23. Sadr City and other scenes of fighting saw life return, and people began counting their dead. In Nasiriyah, officials said 165 people died and 300 were wounded. Karbala saw 12 people killed and 500 arrested. An Interior Ministry spokesman said government security forces had killed 215 Mahdi Army fighters, wounded 600 and arrested 155. He gave no figures for government forces. Another Interior official said 150 police officers and 400 policemen had been fired for refusing the fight. Maliki said he had evidence the violence of Basra was a result of interference by "neighboring countries."
Sholnn Freeman of the Post has the story, noting that as people ventured out, they found roads littered with unexploded roadside bombs, shattered markets and other destruction. Also newsworthy, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the fighting would not affect plans to end the surge this spring and summer.
Mr. Sadr has demonstrated his power, despite the blows dealt to his movement over the past few years. The government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, thanked him profusely on Monday for his decision, but vowed that the fight would continue in Basra, where militiamen have now largely melted away from the streets, but remain very much in control of their strongholds.Also worrying were the large-scale incidents of defections among the Iraqi Army and police units. This should be the thing keeping U.S. commanders up at night. As Dagher writes, "despite all the funding and training from the US, Iraq's soldiers remain greatly swayed by their sectarian and party loyalties and are incapable of standing up in a fight without US backing." People in Sadr strongholds are angrier with the U.S. and the Maliki government now, giving the young cleric juice for his April 9 comeback to Baghdad. It's quite extraordinary. Given up as marginalized, fled to Iran and expressing disappointment at the way Iraq was going, Sadr now seems to be reinvigorated.
A Monitor editorial says Gen. David H. Petraeus needs to be forthright in his report on Iraq and say whether the Battle of Basra has made it easier or not for the U.S. to pull out.
The Wall Street Journal's Yochi J. Dreazen leads with the statement: "The Iraqi government's inability to oust Moqtada al-Sadr's militia from Basra has boosted the fortunes of the Shiite cleric while damaging the standing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki." This may be one of the better analyses on the fighting, examining its ramifications for both Iraqi and American politics. (It likely won't help John McCain.) "President Bush was right that Basra marked a defining moment for Iraq, but not in the way that he intended," said Vali Nasr, a scholar of Shiite politics at Tufts University who has advised U.S. policy makers. "This is the birth of Sadrist power." But then, Bush has a talent for backing the wrong horse in Iraq fights. His reliance on exiles has constantly undermined the U.S. mission there.
Sudarsan Raghavan of the Post puts a human face on the fighting in Baghdad, reporting on the shooting of a family in Zafraniya, allegedly by American troops. (The U.S. military says it has no knowledge of any exchange.) Raghavan's good at bringing the human emotion out in these situations, but I'm not sure this warrants front-page play.
IN OTHER COVERAGE
Eugene Robinson, a regular op-ed columnist, takes McCain (and Bush) to task over Iraq, saying that if the past week was a "defining moment" for Iraq, it defined Maliki as an impulsive leader and an inept general -- and his government as a work barely in progress. Ouch!
No original coverage today.