04/01/2008, 00.00
IRAQ
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Apparent calm in Iraq's cities

Two days after the ceasefire ordered by Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, the people are returning to the streets, shops are reopening, and there is an air of normality. But the peace is held in precarious balance, and the hopes of the government are accompanied by new threats from the al-Sadr militants.

Baghdad (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Iraqis can finally come out of their houses after the guerrilla fighters of Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr have been dispersed by the leader's direct order.

Pedestrians and vehicles are reclaiming the public spaces after the long curfew, although vehicle traffic is still forbidden in Sadr City, a Shiite militia stronghold in northeastern Baghdad, and in other Shiite areas.

In an interview published by Agence France Presse, Ahmed Suhail, a resident of Sadr City, says "life is getting back to normal in Sadr City. Most shops are open and there are no militiamen in the streets", although schools and offices remain closed.

Clashes between Shiite militias and the security forces of the Iraqi government, which have caused the deaths of 461 people, lasted from March 25-30, until al-Sadr announced a "ceasefire" that was greatly appreciated, especially by Washington.

According to some Iraqi legislators, the "ceasefire" is the result of a meeting held on March 28 in Iran, between exponents of the Shiite government of al-Maliki and al-Sadr. Ties between the Iranian and Iraqi Shiites have guaranteed the truce, but they also reveal the enormous influence that Iran exercises over Iraq, where Shiites are 60% of the population. Some sources have confirmed that during the negotiations, the Iranians pressured al-Sadr to impose conditions in exchange for the suspension of fighting.

The conditions imposed on the Iraqi government by al-Sadr concern the release of prisoners who have not been charged with specific crimes, although the government is maintaining a hard line.  The spokesman of the al-Sadr movement, Salman al-Fraiji, has stated that the American and Iraqi security forces have continued to break into houses and arrest people in the district of Sadr City and in the cities of Diwaniyah, Karbala, and Nassiria.  For his part, major general  Abdul Aziz - commander of the security forces - has told journalists that the officials had valid arrest warrants for the criminals who were rounded up in the four cities.

The state of peace that seems to dominate now is, nonetheless, precarious.  A rebel of the Mahdi army, Haider al-Asadi, has declared that "we are ready, should the Americans come inside our district, to fight. We have enough IEDs (improvised explosive devices) for them. If they come, we will defend ourselves".

So far, the "ceasefire" of Moqtada al-Sadr has not been violated, and according to government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh any unauthorised attack by the al-Sadr movement would have the effect of isolating the dissidents, and therefore permitting them to be identified.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, says he hopes that the order from Moqtada al-Sadr may contribute to the process of stabilising the country, calling it "a step in the right direction".

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