Basra Update

BASRA UPDATE….What’s really going on in Basra? First, reporting on the latest in the fight between the government forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikia and the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, there’s this from Ned Parker of the LA Times:

The Iraqi government’s offensive in Basra has spelled the end to a seven-month cease-fire by Sadr’s militia in all but name. In an ominous sign Saturday, Sadr in a rare TV interview praised armed resistance. Separately, he urged his followers to defy Maliki’s ultimatum to surrender their weapons.

Sounds bad. But a few hours later (though the timing is unclear) Sadr issued a conciliatory nine-point plan that al-Jazeera says was “agreed with the Iraqi government.” An Associated Press dispatch provides the following description of the announcement:

Al-Sadr’s nine-point statement was issued by his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf and broadcast through loudspeakers on Shiite mosques. It said the first point was: “taking gunmen off the streets in Basra and elsewhere.”

He also demanded that the Iraqi government stop “haphazard raids” and release security detainees who haven’t been charged, two issues cited by his movement as reasons for fighting the government.

Followers handed out sweets in Baghdad’s main Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called the statement “positive and responsible.” But he also warned in a telephone interview broadcast on Iraqi state TV. that security forces would continue to target those who don’t follow the order.

“We expect a wide response to this call,” he said. “After this announcement, anybody who targets the government and its institutions will be regarded … as outlaws.”

So apparently Sadr remains willing to continue his cease-fire, but only if Maliki stands down. In the meantime, he has no intention of giving up his weapons and has demanded the return of captured Mahdi Army fighters. Overall, this sounds like it’s an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.

Just a guess, though. Sadr’s intentions have been unusually opaque throughout this entire operation, and it’s hard to say exactly what he’s been up to in Basra. Taking an opportunity to allow someone else to purge rogue elements in his movement? Consolidating control over Basra? Burnishing his credentials as a responsible statesman? Just reacting to events? All of the above? Your guess is as good as mine — and as good as anyone else’s as well, I think.