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The Conflict in Iraq

Sadr Orders Militia to Cease Fire

Forces are to demobilize nationwide, spokesman says. Cleric's group will take part in politics.

August 31, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Muqtada Sadr, the Shiite Muslim cleric whose militia battled U.S. and Iraqi forces during a three-week standoff in the holy city of Najaf, ordered his armed followers throughout Iraq to cease fighting, a Sadr spokesman said Monday.

Sheik Ali Smeisim said Sadr's group was making plans to join Iraq's nascent political process. The plans would be laid out in coming days, Smeisim said.

"We appeal to the Iraqi government to be patient, to have self-restraint and to withdraw the occupation forces from the cities' centers and also the Iraqi army," he said in an interview on the Arabic-language Al Jazeera television channel. "At the same time, we ask the Mahdi army to cease fire except as self-defense and to wait for the announcement of the political project that will be undertaken."

Iraqi elections are scheduled to be held in January.

Smeisim said the agreement that ended the standoff at the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf on Friday offered hope for a broader halt to fighting. "In Najaf, there is no shooting. Tranquillity has prevailed in the city. We want this to cover all provinces of Iraq," he said.

Smeisim declined to say whether Sadr's Al Mahdi militia would surrender its weapons. "It will be announced in time," he said.

The call to end fighting nationwide goes well beyond the agreement that ended the confrontation at the Imam Ali Mosque and sent Sadr's fighters out of Najaf and the city of Kufa. The announcement represents good news for the government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has repeatedly called upon Sadr's backers to pursue their goals through the political process.

Although Sadr has told his followers that they were free to join the political process, he has said he would not seek office.

In an interview with foreign journalists Sunday, Allawi reiterated his government's hard-line stance toward militias. "The position of the government is, no militia law. No militia is allowed to operate," he said.

Allawi said Iraqi authorities would "go [after] them until they disband or make use of the amnesty we have declared.... Once they do this, no problem, they can live as organized citizens."

Sadr, who opposes the presence of multinational troops in Iraq and whose militia has clashed repeatedly with U.S., British and Iraqi forces, appears to have emerged from Najaf with a stronger hand.

But his potential as a political player remains unknown. It also remains to be seen how much clout he will wield within the majority Shiite electorate that is expected to dominate the voting.

Sadr has a substantial following among fundamentalist Shiites in places such as Sadr City, the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood named after his late father. Many Iraqis view the younger Sadr as an unlearned upstart who has largely capitalized on his father's name.

In recent months, Sadr's armed followers have twice taken over the Najaf shrine, one of Islam's holiest sites, and engaged in weeks-long battles with U.S. forces in Sadr City. In June, Sadr agreed to leave the shrine but without making firm commitments such as those he acceded to last week.

The latest conflict ended Friday after Iraq's most respected cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, brokered a deal in which Sadr's militiamen would abandon the shrine and turn in their arms, leaving Najaf and Kufa weapons-free zones. That agreement, endorsed by the Allawi government, also called for Iraqi police to be solely in charge of security in those cities.

But not all the fighters gave up their weapons, leaving open the possibility of future armed clashes.

Despite the Najaf pact, fighting continued elsewhere between armed Sadr followers and U.S. and British troops. In Basra, where pro-Sadr forces have battled British troops for weeks, Iraqi police were reported Monday to have reached a deal with the militia's representatives that called for removing weapons from the southern city and ending attacks on British soldiers. Under the reported agreement, jailed Sadr fighters were to be freed.

A British military spokeswoman said she was unaware of an agreement.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Baghdad and special correspondent Othman Ghanim in Basra contributed to this report.

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