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Shiite cleric Sadr to demobilize most of his militia

June 14, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr appeared to move Friday toward reorganizing his Mahdi Army militia and shifting much of the movement's focus toward peaceful social activities, though he said its military wing would reserve the right to attack U.S. forces.

Sadr, in a statement read after Friday prayers in his stronghold of Kufa, said a select number of Mahdi Army cadres would be allowed to bear arms and use them only with authorization.

His orders, read by a deputy, said the militia's guns and mortars "will be directed only toward the occupiers and no one else. . . . Any further targets will not be allowed."

The cleric's statement came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki told reporters in Jordan that negotiations for a long-term security agreement between Iraq and the United States had "reached a dead end." Maliki emphasized that the talks would continue despite the impasse, which he blamed on U.S. demands that he said "hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq."

Many of the concerns Maliki expressed have been voiced recently by officials in his Islamic Dawa Party and the larger Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance. U.S. officials have said they support Iraqi sovereignty, but have declined to disclose their negotiating stance.

Maliki said the suggested provisions he considered unacceptable included allowing the U.S. to control Iraqi airspace and American forces to operate independently to arrest Iraqis deemed to be terrorist threats. In particular, he objected to giving immunity from Iraqi prosecution to all coalition soldiers and private military contractors.

Iraqi and U.S. officials are negotiating to determine how long American forces will remain and under what terms after a United Nations mandate authorizing their presence expires at the end of the year.

In the spring, Iraqi troops backed by U.S. air power clashed with Mahdi militiamen in the southern oil city of Basra and the Baghdad district of Sadr City. The two operations were publicly announced as campaigns to end lawlessness, but primarily targeted Mahdi Army strongholds.

The fighting ended with a cease-fire agreement, but U.S. commanders allege that rogue Mahdi fighters, acting with Iranian support, continue to attack Iraqi soldiers and police officers.

Sadr's announcement seems to be aimed at imposing greater discipline and a clearer chain of command on the Mahdi movement. It also indicates that the reconstituted Mahdi military wing will be forbidden to turn its weapons on Iraqi security forces.

Spokesman Salah Ubaidi said in an interview Friday night that Sadr, who is alleged to be in Iran, "wants to put an end to those who are not following orders."

Ubaidi characterized the mandated changes as a step toward a more mature Mahdi Army.

"It's changing the way the Sadr movement functions," he said. The "majority" of Mahdi fighters will now be expected to put down their weapons and "focus on the ideological and intellectual aspects" of Sadr's goals, Ubaidi said.

For the remaining fighters, the goal of armed resistance against U.S. soldiers will remain unchanged.

"As long as there is an occupation, we won't end the resistance," Ubaidi said.

Sadr's statement promised dire consequences for any militiamen who refuse to accept the new system.

"Those who violate this [order], I will have nothing to do with him," Sadr said. "He will be our enemy."


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