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Iraq: Elusive Cease-Fire In Al-Sadr City Begs New Questions

By Richard Tomkins --> Construction of the wall, which is aimed at thwarting Shi'ite militants, in early May (RFE/RL) BAGHDAD -- After nearly two months of clashes, the Iraqi government and representatives of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced a cease-fire for Baghdad's Al-Sadr City, where residents are said to be suffering from shortages of food and fresh water.

The announcement was made on May 11, but gunfire and explosions could still be heard the following day in the volatile district as fighting continued around the 3-mile barrier that U.S. forces are erecting to block extremists from infiltrating the southern section of Al-Sadr City to fire rockets on the capital's International Zone, the seat of the Iraqi national government and headquarters for U.S. military and diplomatic offices.

"It doesn't look like a cease-fire to me," U.S. Army Major Kyle Ferger, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, said. "Just last night there were more than a dozen [incidents] along the wall.

"The wall's a magnet for them. They just keep on attacking."

U.S. authorities said troops killed three gunmen in clashes late on May 11 and early the next day. Ferger said al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army -- or Iranian-influenced "Special Group" linked to it -- fired on troops using rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. There were also a number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that went off.

The wall, made of 4-meter-high concrete slabs, stretches along Al-Quds Street along the northern edges of the Tharwa and Jamilla neighborhoods. It was begun in mid-April to block Shi'ite extremists from infiltrating the area through cross streets. Citizens can still travel between the southern and northern sections of Al-Sadr City but will have to use three main crossings where Iraqi soldiers search vehicles for weapons and munitions.

As of May 11, the wall was 75-percent complete and would be finished by the end of the week, according to Feger.

Al-Sadr City, located in the northeastern part of Baghdad, is the stronghold of al-Sadr, a political rival of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Last year, al-Sadr declared a cease-fire with the government that helped bring new security to the capital, but he rescinded it in late March when the Iraqi Army took on Shi'ite gunmen, including al-Sadr's forces, in the southern port city of Al-Basrah amid spiraling lawlessness.

Fighting spread to Al-Sadr City, from where 107-millimeter and 120-millimeter rockets were launched almost daily on the International Zone. Shi'ite gunmen in mid-April also overran a number of Iraqi Army posts in the southern portion of the district. Those posts were retaken with U.S. help after some Iraqi Army units deserted.

According to reports, the new cease-fire calls for al-Sadr's forces to surrender their medium and heavy weapons. The government agreed to open all roads into Al-Sadr City, which the United Nations said is suffering from shortages of food and water.

Iraqi troops would reportedly be allowed to enter the district to search for criminals, but additional details of the cease-fire were reportedly still being worked out in negotiations between the government and representatives of al-Sadr, who is believed living in Iran.

It was also unclear whether al-Sadr's representatives could bring about compliance by the Special Groups.

"[The new cease-fire] is a lie," Iraqi Army Colonel Yehea Resol Abdala said on May 12 in reference to militants adhering to it. "Just an hour ago, they attacked my soldiers. We know these people; we've fought them before. If they don't surrender their weapons, they must be squashed."

Ironically, in the same hour in which word on May 10 was first received of the cease-fire, 11 IEDs could be heard from the colonel's Jamilla-neighborhood office.

Yehea is commander of an Iraqi Army division that operates in the Jamilla area. His unit stood firm and fought off Al-Mahdi Army and Special Group gunmen when they launched concerted, coordinated attacks on government positions on April 19.

Yehea, like his troops, is a Shi'a from Al-Sadr City and said government forces must be in the city or there will be no peace. "The Special Groups don't take their orders from al-Sadr," he said. "They take their orders from Iran."

U.S. and Iraqi authorities suspect Iran of having trained some Special Group elements, and they accuse Iran of providing extremists with explosively formed penetrator (EFP) bombs, which pierce armored vehicles. Iran denies both.