In a surprise announcement, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Monday that he was considering whether to disband his militia, the Mahdi Army, one of the most powerful armed groups in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has taken a tough stand against the militia, has said it must be disbanded or Sadr's supporters will be blocked from participating in upcoming local elections.
Sadr's main stronghold in Baghdad, Sadr City, home to 2.5 million people, has been encircled by cordons of Iraqi army and police, blocking all vehicle access. Many residents were fleeing fighting in several neighborhoods on foot.
Whole families — using carts to carry those too old or infirm to walk — have made the treacherous journey past snipers, burning vehicles, militiamen and U.S. forces.
One woman said she couldn't take it anymore, describing the recent clashes there as weeks of hell. As she talked about the lack of food and water, shooting broke out on Sadr City's eerily empty streets.
Before giving her name, the woman rushed off, explaining that she was terrified and just wanted to get out as quickly as she could with her family.
The fighting has shown no sign of letting up. U.S. forces, along with the Iraqi Army and national police, have been pushing deep into Sadr City, meeting resistance from the Mahdi Army. Maliki said Monday that he would give the militiamen no quarter.
"We will not stop until we are in full control of these areas," he told CNN.
In the eastern part of Sadr City, Brig. Ali Ibraheem Daboun of the national police's 8th Division said he was waiting for orders to go in and capture or kill wanted Mahdi Army fighters. They have until Tuesday to lay down their guns.
"We are blocking vehicles from going in or out to stop supplies to the gunmen. We want to isolate them so we can fight them in this area, detain them or kill them," Daboun said, adding that the Mahdi Army is on the defensive and running out of ammunition.
The Mahdi Army fighters aren't the only ones facing pressure. Maliki, other top government leaders and several key political parties signed an agreement during the weekend that seeks to legislate the militia out of existence.
The proposed law would exclude from politics any party that has an armed wing. If passed — and the proposal has a great deal of support — Sadr's backers would not be able to run for office in the upcoming provincial elections unless the Mahdi Army was disbanded.
"There is a rising military and political pressure against the Sadrists," parliament member Falah Shenshel, a Sadr supporter, told NPR by phone. "This is an escalation by Maliki. He has no right to interfere. Taking part in an election is a constitutional right given to all Iraqi people; it is not a gift from Maliki."
But the pressure seems to be working. Last month, Sadr ordered his militiamen to stand down after Maliki launched an offensive in the southern city of Basra that led to clashes throughout Baghdad and the Shiite south.
On Monday, one of Sadr's spokesmen confirmed that he was sending two delegations to meet his spiritual advisers in both Iraq and Iran to discuss disbanding the Mahdi Army. Sadr said he would abide by their decisions regarding the militia's fate.