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BAGHDAD — American forces and the Iraqi government are officially resisting any attempts to connect recent fighting to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, a Multi-National Force–Iraq spokesman, described a brightening security picture in Basra and Baghdad to a group of reporters in the capital Sunday — initially without any mention of the militant group.

Instead, he said the Americans and Iraqi security forces have been battling “armed criminals” and “gangs” who possess illegal weapons. Driscoll noted that Iraqi Security Forces arrested more than 400 criminals during the fighting, including several death-row convicts at large in Basra.

Since al-Sadr declared a truce with coalition forces last year, the military has taken great pains to distinguish between the mainstream Mahdi Army and breakaway elements that it calls “special groups.”

That view is at odds with many Iraqis, most of whom simply call any Shiite militants Mahdi Army. During last week’s fighting in Shula, for example, informants filled tip lines with information that they’d seen Mahdi Army members amassing in the streets. Iraqi commanders attributed the lull after fighting exploded in March to al-Sadr’s realization that his army was losing. Some Iraqi government officials have even warned the Americans that the distinction between the Mahdi Army and special groups isn’t always so clear.

Driscoll batted away a question about whom soldiers are told they’re fighting. Leaders tell them the rules of engagement and that civilians who carry illegal weapons on the street are criminals, he said.

Yet ground-level soldiers frequently ignore the official distinction and simply call the attackers “JAM,” after the militia’s Arabic name, “Jaysh al Mahdi.”

For example, a lieutenant in northwest Baghdad said the arrest of several mid-level Mahdi Army commanders a few months ago helped his company during the fighting.

A company commander in the same area said Iraqi army units made deals with the militia so as not to be attacked.

Soldiers in north central Baghdad talked with Iraqi army soldiers about a possible Mahdi Army attack the day before al-Sadr’s canceled “million-man march” was to take place.

Al-Sadr himself has reinforced the distinction, however. When he declared the truce, he also disowned anyone who attacks the Americans. Al-Sadr renewed that truce in February and has not canceled it despite the recent fighting across the country.

“By definition, anyone in JAM should be hearing that and not carrying weapons,” Driscoll said.

However, fighting in Basra and Baghdad subsided after al-Sadr ordered the fighters to withdraw — although it still continues.

More recently, al-Sadr responded harshly to comments from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that he would not be treated as an enemy of the United States as long as he played a peaceful role in Iraqi politics.

“You (infidels) will always be an enemy and you will remain so until the last drop of my blood,” al-Sadr said in a statement. “If you don’t withdraw from our land or set a timetable for withdrawal acceptable to the Iraqi people, we will resist in the way we see fit.”

Dr. Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, emphasized that the laws that make it illegal to carry weapons in the streets apply to everyone equally and cautioned the audience not to simply label all militants Mahdi Army.

“Not everyone who carries a weapon is JAM,” Dabbagh said.

Whoever the enemy is, Driscoll said the Iraqi government is moving forward in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, a city with a majority Sunni population.

He cited Basra in particular as an area that is improving. The city saw widespread violence when Iraqi Army units moved in to break militants’ hold over the area. But Driscoll said residents are starting to see a return to a normal life.

“It’s going to be a tough fight,” he cautioned. “There are going to be spikes in violence. But the issue is who is going to enforce the law.”

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