Insurgents met the determined advance of Iraqi and US security forces into Baghdad with another deadly bomb Friday, despite signs that Shiite militiamen at least have decided to go to ground.
On the first day of weekly Muslim prayers since the Baghdad operation was launched, witnesses said US and Iraqi units were pushing into central city districts that have been the scene of recent sectarian carnage.
There was no sign of organized resistance, but one Iraqi unit was hit by a roadside bomb on the Mohammed Al Qasim highway, leaving one officer dead and a soldier wounded, a defense ministry official said.
A column of US armored vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police headed into an administrative area near the Shorja market, where more than 70 people were killed by a devastating series of car bombs Monday.
While bomb attacks continue and there is sporadic resistance from some armed groups, the US and Iraqi forces’ “Operation Law and Order” seems not to have run into any determined resistance from Baghdad’s myriad armed groups.
And, as the weekly vehicle curfew began to protect Sunni and Shiite worshippers heading to their respective mosques, the city center was calm.
International analysts said it appeared that militia and insurgent groups had decided to keep to the shadows during the sweep, which was announced in detail two months ago, while preparing their next move.
“I would suggest that both armed groups … will lie low for as long as the United States carries out this military action in Baghdad,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
His comments came after Iraq President Jalal Talabani confirmed reports that the biggest Shiite militia group – the Jaish Al Mehdi, or Mehdi Army – had chosen to stand aside while the security plan ran its course.
Iraqi and US officials say the Mehdi Army’s leader, radical cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, left Iraq for neighboring Iran last month, sparking rumors that he fears arrest at the hands of American forces.
But Talabani told reporters that the militia’s top cadres had opted to stay out of trouble and that Sadr was keen to see the security plan succeed.
“I think that many senior officials of the Jaish Al Mehdi have received an order to leave Iraq to facilitate the mission of the Iraqi security forces to carry out their plan,” Talabani said, according to an official statement.
Sadr’s supporters insist he is still in Iraq, and some even promised he would lead Friday prayers in the Shiite town of Kufa. He did not turn up, however, a reporter at the mosque confirmed.
The decision by the militia to abandon its checkpoints and armed patrols in areas like Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood could be viewed as a success for the Iraqi government’s attempts to draw hardliners into the political process.
But Sunni leaders are suspicious, fearing Shiite death squad commanders have slipped the net with the complicity of the government and will return once US forces begin to scale back their “surge” into the city.
The Mehdi Army militia was described in the Pentagon’s last quarterly report on the war as having replaced Al Qaeda as “the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq.”
Nevertheless, Sadr retains close ties to Iraq’s US-backed government and to Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, who holds his post thanks to the votes of the radical Shiite movement’s 32 parliament members.
Maliki’s rival for the top job, Vice-President Adil Abdel Mehdi, said in a British Broadcasting Corporation radio interview Friday that he was still available. “Should there be a change in Iraq, I am still there,” he said.
The vice-president is a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the formerly Iran-based party of Abdel Aziz Al Hakim, Sadr’s main rival for the support of Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Iraqi spokesmen remained tight-lipped on reports by security sources that the Egyptian leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub Al Masri, had been wounded in a gunbattle with Iraqi troops and was on the run.
“I cannot confirm this information just now,” said Iraqi defense ministry spokesman Qassim Al Mussawi after state television and anonymous security sources said Masri had been hurt in a clash in Dhuluiyah, north of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Democratic lawmakers were to vote on a resolution to condemn President George W. Bush’s decision to deploy 21,500 more troops to Iraq despite the mounting violence.