In a move that could open the way for an end to clashes between militia and security forces, Iraq’s radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Sunday ordered his fighters off the streets.
“We want the Iraqi people to stop this bloodshed and maintain Iraq’s independence and stability,” Sadr said in a statement released by his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf.
“For that we have decided to withdraw from the streets of Basra and all other provinces.”
The statement came after six days of fighting between Shiite fighters and Iraqi forces in the southern port city of Basra and Baghdad that have left nearly 270 dead.
Sadr said he wanted “to stop the bleeding of Iraqis, to maintain the reputation of Iraqi people, the unity of land and people, to prepare for its independence and liberation from the dark forces and to quell the fire of division by the occupier and its followers.”
The latest clashes began after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an assault on Shiite militiamen in neighbourhoods of Basra controlled by the Mahdi Army, the most powerful Shiite militia, earlier in the week.
Sadr ordered his men off the streets after the Iraqi government offensive stalled and Maliki’s call to Shiite fighters to disarm went unheeded.
“Sadr has told us not to surrender our arms except to a state that can throw out the (US) occupation,” Haider al-Jabari of the Sadr movement’s political bureau said on Saturday.
In an attempt to bolster the flagging Iraqi government offensive British and American warplanes bombed Basra on Sunday.
US jets carried out earlier air strikes on Basra on Friday and Saturday in which several people were killed, according to Iraqi and US officials.
On Sunday, the US military admitted that its ground troops had joined in the Basra assault.
A team of American special forces was deployed in Basra, combining with Iraqi troops in an operation that killed 22 militants on Saturday, a U.S. military spokesman said.
Meanwhile British troops deployed outside their base on the edge of Basra in support of the Iraqi operations, British military spokesman Major Tom Holloway said on Sunday.
“There are no plans for our troops to enter the city. We are providing other forms of support,” he told reporters.
In an indication of how serious the fighting has been in Basra, ukurnet.info reports that an Iraqi copter was shot down by the Mehdi army late on Friday.
“An Iraqi copter went down last night when Mahdi army gunmen fired at it near the Military Hospital in northern Basra,” an eyewitness told Asawt al-Iraq- Voices of Iraq- (VOI).
Another eyewitness said that the copter was shot down in an area that had seen “fierce battles” between Iraqi security forces and Mahdi army militia.
So far there has been no word from Iraqi military on the incident.