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Sadr orders his militia to stand down

The anti-U.S. cleric tells the Mahdi Army to halt activity for six months. The move comes after intra-Shiite clashes.

August 30, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr on Wednesday ordered his Mahdi Army militia to halt hostilities for six months to restore its credibility in the eyes of Iraqis shaken by a deadly outbreak of Shiite-on-Shiite violence.

The unexpected move by the fiery anti-U.S. Muslim leader, coupled with a vow to cease attacks on American forces in Iraq, may also have been aimed at elevating his standing among his countrymen and their neighbors by attempting to demonstrate that he has the power to make peace or destroy it.

"I direct the Mahdi Army to suspend all its activity for six months, until it is restructured in a way that helps honor the principles for which it was formed," Sadr said in a statement from his stronghold in Najaf.

The announcement came after deadly clashes between Shiite militias this week in the holy city of Karbala in which at least 52 people were killed and 300 injured. The fighting was blamed on Sadr's Mahdi militiamen and the rival Badr Organization, the armed wing of the country's biggest Shiite political force, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Sadr said he did not approve of the bloodshed and was halting militia operations to purge infiltrators and rogue elements engaging in attacks that discredit the populist force.

The militia has splintered into factions and needs to be "rehabilitated," Sadr aide Hazim Araji told Iraqi state television.

The freeze on operations was being ordered "without exception," Araji said.

Sadr's announcement seemed to quickly defuse tension in the capital. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims forced to evacuate Karbala because of the fighting and a security crackdown flooded into Baghdad in a noisy convoy of overloaded trucks, buses and cattle trailers.

Flags and banners proclaiming allegiance to Sadr fluttered from the teeming, horn-honking vehicles as they threaded checkpoints manned by Mahdi or Badr gunmen, bandoleers of ammunition across their chests and automatic rifles at the ready.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, flew to Karbala to survey the scene of the gun battle and discuss security with local officials. He fired the provincial security minister and ordered an investigation to expose the perpetrators.

Maliki's suggestion that remnants of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated Baath Party were to blame drew scorn in Baghdad as the latest example of his inability to properly identify and eradicate the roots of violence in Iraq.

"Maliki is only making matters worse with his interference and his visit" to Karbala and Najaf, said Nassar Rubaie, head of Sadr's parliamentary bloc.

Political analysts saw Sadr's pledge to lay down weapons as damage control after the Karbala clashes, which instilled terror across the country.

"Sadr is likely trying to deflect criticism for the clash in Karbala by blaming the event on rogue elements in the Mahdi Army," said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

Nasr said the Mahdi militia has been expanding and becoming better armed, probably with Iranian assistance, at the same time the U.S. has been building up its forces and counterinsurgency operations against Sunni militants in the last six months.

Mahdi and Badr gunmen have been moving south in preparation for the withdrawal of British troops from the major city of Basra. With the nation's most valuable oil assets seen as up for grabs, a battle for supremacy has been expected.

If the rival militias in the south continue to strengthen and become disconnected from the Maliki government, "then things may well fall apart completely," Nasr said, predicting a level of violence as yet unseen in more than four years of conflict.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said he had made inquiries about the clashes in Karbala and was assured by "the brothers of the Sadr movement" that the violence was committed by rogue elements and enemies who had infiltrated the militia with the aim of discrediting it.

Sadr's move also might have been encouraged by Iranian allies alarmed by the intra-Shiite strife, some officials theorize.

"I think Iran might have had a say in it," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament. "Iran is keen to have unity among the Shiites."

Othman predicted that the divergent views held in Baghdad and Washington on Iran's position in the region were likely to bring U.S. and Iraqi allies into confrontation.

"The United States considers Iran an enemy, while on the contrary the Iraqi government thinks of the Iranian government as a friend," Othman said.

With the increasingly sour state of relations between Washington and Tehran, he said, Iranian politicians need a cohesive Iraqi Shiite political front to work with to maintain and enhance their influence in Iraq, considering the presence of more than 160,000 U.S. troops in the country.

American military commanders here have accused rogue elements of Sadr's militia of collaborating with Iran to bring in armor-piercing munitions for use against U.S.-led troops.

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