BAGHDAD - An angry Shiite militia commander complained yesterday "we were duped" into accepting a cease-fire in Sadr City - remarks that pointed 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 government forces and Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which held nearly complete control of the capital's sprawling 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 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 reignite Shiite-on-Shiite violence across Iraq's oil-rich south.
The commander, speaking to tribal sheikhs and lawmakers loyal to Sadr, said "we were duped and deceived" by the truce. "They are arresting many of us now."
The group had gathered in 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 parliamentarians who attended the meeting in Sadr City, home to 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 government 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.
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.
The head of Sadr's office in Sadr City, Sheikh Salman al-Freiji, suggested the truce might collapse if "violations" by the Iraqi army continued.
"There will not be any trust built between the two sides like that," 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 conciliatory. He blamed the Iraqi army for heavy-handed tactics but stressed that he did not want more fighting in Sadr City.
The Iraqi government's
national reconciliation efforts suffered a new setback yesterday as the main Sunni political
bloc said it had halted talks on ending its boycott because of disagreement over a cabinet post.
The dispute flared
on the eve of a U.N. conference in Sweden where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was expected to face pressure to shore up recent security gains by making progress on the political front, including reconciliation among Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Accordance Front's leader, Adnan al-Dulaimi, said the decision was triggered by Maliki's refusal to let the bloc resume the leadership of
the key Planning Ministry.
The Sunni bloc,
which consists of three parties that hold 44 of the 275 parliamentary seats,
pulled its members out
of the 39-member
cabinet in August, saying they were not getting enough say in decision-making.
But Sunni politicians
said last month they were negotiating a possible return, apparently swayed by Maliki's crackdown on
Shiite militias, including radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's feared Mahdi
The prime minister,
himself a Shiite, expressed optimism April 25, saying he expected to be ready to present a new cabinet list "within a few days."