- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may let a cease-fire of six months expire as soon as Saturday, a move that could send his Shi’ite militia fighters back to the streets and jeopardize security gains that have led to a sharp decline in violence.

Sheik al-Sadr’s Shi’ite Mahdi Army is among the most powerful militias in Iraq, and the cease-fire he ordered last August has been credited with helping reduce violence around Iraq by 60 percent in the past six months.

Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, an al-Sadr spokesman in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying the cease-fire was extended, “then that means the freeze is over.” Al-Sadr followers would be free to resume attacks.

On an Internet site representing Sheik al-Sadr, Sheik al-Obeidi said Sheik al-Sadr “either will announce the extension or will stay silent and not announce anything. If [he] stays silent, that means that the freeze is over.”

Sheik al-Obeidi said that message “has been conveyed to all Mahdi Army members nationwide.”

Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that the cease-fire declared by Sheik al-Sadr last August was good for the Iraqi people.

“We would welcome the extension of the cease-fire as a positive step,” he said.

While the U.S. has welcomed the cease-fire, it also has insisted on continuing to stage raids against what it calls Iranian-backed breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army militia — moves that have angered the cleric’s followers.

Influential members of Sheik al-Sadr’s movement said earlier they had urged the radical cleric to call off the cease-fire, which initially was set to expire at the end of the month. His followers have claimed the U.S.-Iraqi raids, particularly in the Shi’ite cities of Diwaniyah, Basra and Karbala, are a pretext to crack down on the movement, which has pulled its support for the Washington-backed government.

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