Rebels Seem to Have Ceded Karbala
Finally, some positive news out of Iraq:
American commanders said early Sunday that insurgents loyal to a rebel cleric appeared to have given up control of central Karbala, where they had been shielding themselves at two shrines.
According to the commanders, there were several strong signs that the armed supporters of Moktada al-Sadr, the maverick Shiite cleric, have abandoned the area and ceded authority to the Americans and their allies after nearly three weeks of urban combat.
A large overnight raid met no resistance coming from a group of buildings where insurgents had been firing at American tanks with rocket-propelled grenades. Civilians were seen returning to homes in central Karbala that they had abandoned during fierce fighting. And in the afternoon on Saturday, tribal sheiks approached American commanders offering to persuade the militia, the Mahdi Army, to lay down its arms and leave the city.
“It looks like they just packed up and went home,” Col. Peter Mansoor, commander of the First Brigade of the First Armored Division, said in an operations tent on the city outskirts where he monitored field reports. Referring to Mr. Sadr, Colonel Mansoor said, “I think his days are numbered.”
An Iraqi reporter for The New York Times in Karbala said he had seen militiamen putting their weapons in bags in recent days and trying to leave the city. Some residents of the city have distributed fliers denouncing Mr. Sadr and the presence of his fighters.
American commanders said they would press the Iraqi police to do patrols in the old city in the next week. Whether and how the police get attacked will determine how much is left of the insurgency, the commanders said.
If the insurgency in Karbala has truly dissipated, then Mr. Sadr’s six-week insurrection has suffered badly. Though the Americans clamped down on the rebellion, Mr. Sadr had managed to maintain his grip on three towns: Karbala; the nearby holy city of Najaf, where he lives; and Kufa, a town adjacent to Najaf where Mr. Sadr preaches.
This seems out of the blue and my simply represent a tactical decision to mass forces elsewhere. But it could be a sign that the insurgents have less popular support than advertised.