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Observers interpret Iraq cease-fire, Iran's role

  • Story Highlights
  • Observers of Iraqi conflict Monday offer fresh perspectives on the situation
  • Fighting raged in the Shiite-dominated south last week
  • Expert: Iran creates problems by fostering close relations with Shiite groups
  • Viewpoint: Whether tactical or temporary, al-Sadr's call for cease-fire is good
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(CNN) -- The deal to end the weeklong fighting in Iraq's Shiite regions appeared to be holding Monday, but left lingering questions about Iran's growing influence, the Iraqi government's military resolve and the chances for more intra-Shiite hostility.

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A woman rushes her son to the hospital Monday in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq.

Observers of the Iraqi conflict Monday offered fresh perspectives on the situation in the nation, where fighting raged in the Shiite-dominated south after the government last week launched an offensive in the city of Basra against what it called "outlaws."

The fighting -- much of which raged in strongholds of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia -- swiftly worked its way up to Baghdad. The violence subsided only after Shiite lawmakers traveled to Iran Friday to negotiate with Iranian officials and with al-Sadr, who later called on his followers to end violent battles in the country and to cooperate with the Iraqi security forces.

Senior U.S. military officials said the move doesn't solve the turf wars in the Shiite heartland and believe they could easily flare again. And it leaves Sadrists and others in control of large swaths of territory.

The government's Basra offensive, spearheaded by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, highlights the fledgling Shiite-dominated Iraqi government's efforts to engage militias on their own, the U.S. officials say. At the same time, it leaves al-Maliki in a precarious political position because he has staked his future on the offensive, and he has left himself little room to maneuver.

"This is all about power," one of the senior U.S. military officials said.

The U.S. assessment of the situation is that it's good Iraqi forces are conducting the Basra offensive largely on their own. At the same time, the officials said, Americans need to be prepared for the Shiite power struggle to continue.

Mahmoud Othman, an Iraqi parliament member and a Kurd, said what happened "is another victory for Iran," which he says has "the upper hand" in Iraq.

Speaking from London, England, Othman said Iran has created problems by fostering close relations with Shiite groups, including the Mehdi Army and the government. When Iran realized the situation was getting out of hand -- threatening a wider war and America's participation in it -- it got involved in the recent talks to stop the violence.

"They make problems," Othman said. "Then they end it the way they like."

Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, Monday complimented the lawmakers for their efforts to end the violence, but he said the government itself wasn't involved in the effort. But Othman said the government was clearly involved, with al-Maliki sending a delegation to Qom in Iran.

For months, Mehdi Army militia fighters have been battling security forces largely controlled by the Badr Organization, considered an ally of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. In Basra, these two groups have been jockeying for power with a third movement, the Fadhila party. Al-Maliki's Dawa party and ISCI are allies.

George Joulwan, a retired U.S. Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, said British troops that were in control in Basra have reduced their troop levels in the country and have receded to the outskirts of the city at Basra's airport.

"So this is a wide open area for factions to try to gain dominance," Joulwan said. "Maliki is one Shiite faction trying to get al-Sadr, which is another, and both trying to get influence in this region. And Iran, by the way, is supporting both factions."

Joulwan said it is important for the United States to engage with the various camps and determine how to forge an outcome that would be in its interest.

"We need to be able to talk to both factions here, both the Maliki government and al-Sadr, in a way that tries to figure out how to get the best outcome here for our interests in the region," Joulwan said. "And in some cases, I think at some point, we need to begin discussing this with Iran."

Last year, Iranian and U.S. diplomats met in Iraq three times to discuss security issues affecting Iraq, but there have been no meetings so far this year.

Mirembe Nantongo, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said the United States is "not aware of what involvement Iran may or may not have had in brokering the cease-fire."

"So far Iran has played a negative and unhelpful role in Iraq by financing and training extremist groups and we need to see a change in that behavior," she said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that while the upsurge in violence was "sobering" and "unsettling," he believes al-Sadr's willingness to impose a cease-fire is a good sign.

"You can say it's tactical or it's temporary," he said. "It still happened."

He said if one compares this week with last, "we are in an immensely better place." Al-Maliki and al-Sadr both had a "common interest" in not letting the country deteriorate into an upsurge of fighting, he said.

"They don't want to preside over a failed state," he said, adding "that's somewhat hopeful."

He said Iranian influences and efforts to foment violence "may be limited by the better senses of the Iraqi players. They want to keep some limits" and "they found a way to back off from the abyss."

O'Hanlon thinks there could have been American support for such an outcome in the background and he emphasized the next U.S. president must be cognizant of the fact that "capable American leadership" is needed to deal with such situations in the future.

Christopher Pang, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the British-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, said al-Sadr and al-Maliki have credibility problems that explain their stances and both are positioning themselves ahead of the provincial elections scheduled for later this year.

Al-Maliki, he said, hasn't been successful in his political reconciliation efforts, but this military "debut" can showcase a capable military force that he can deliver independently.

Al-Sadr, whose father was a famous ayatollah, has been trying to boost his credibility by undergoing more religious training. It is not in his movement's interest to allow the violence to fracture his movement and unravel the progress he has made since August, when he temporarily suspended the Mehdi Army's operations, Pang said.

But the Shiite power struggles continue, he said, among different security forces and in different locales, and Iran has spread its influence around to all factions, even though it is more inclined to support radicals.

Iraq, which is hoping the Basra operation will soon be completed, is pleased with the al-Sadr move.

The Sadrists were once a part of the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which includes Dawa, the Independents and ISCI. Members of the group who held Cabinet posts bolted from those offices last year because the government would not place a timetable on U.S. troop withdrawals. Since the, the Sadrists have established a separate party in parliament.

But al-Dabbagh, the government spokesman, said the Sadrist movement "is a very good component, an essential component in the political process."

He believes that "this plan will enhance the chances of dialogue with them because this was a step in the right path taken by the Sadr trend."

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Abdul Jabbar Ahmad -- an assistant political science professor at Baghdad University -- said the latest cease-fire agreement is hardly the last word in the intra-Shiite conflict, and he said the United States must be creative and realistic in its dealings with Iran if it wants to foster its own influence.

It should not reject everything about Iranian influence, he said -- it should accept what's reasonable and reject what it thinks is bad. He believes Iranian influence, which he says is basically religious, can be countered if patient efforts are taken to build a secular society. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Joe Sterling in Atlanta, Barbara Starr in Washington, and Mohammed Tawfeeq in Iraq contributed to this report.

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