- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced yesterday that he has extended a cease-fire order to his Shi’ite militia for another six months, giving Iraq a chance to continue its fragile recovery from brutal sectarian violence.

His message was delivered by Shi’ite clerics during prayer services in mosques dominated by followers of the black-turbaned cleric.

“According to an order by Sayyid Muqtada, activities of the Mahdi Army will be suspended … for another six-month period,” al-Sadr aide Hazim al-Aaraji said, using an honorific for Sheik al-Sadr during his sermon at the Kazimiyah mosque in Baghdad.

Sheik al-Sadr’s decision to halt the activities of his powerful militia for up to six months last August was one of three critical steps widely credited with bringing the Iraqi death toll down more than 60 percent in recent months.

The other pieces of the puzzle are U.S. troop reinforcements and the move by U.S.-backed Sunni Arab fighters to switch allegiances and start working against al Qaeda in Iraq.

Sheik al-Sadr has said he needs time to reorganize his militia and the announcement was widely seen as a bid to bolster his image as a major player in Iraq as Shi’ite leaders jockey for power ahead of an anticipated U.S. force reduction.

Sheik Sadiq al-Essawi read the instructions in the Mahdi Army’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City after opening the envelope that was sent to Sadrist clerics Thursday.

Sheik al-Sadr said the freeze was extended until the “15th of Shaban,” a reference to the Islamic month before Ramadan, which would mean mid-August.

The U.S. military said the decision would allow American and Iraqi troops to focus “more intensively” on the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq.

The military command added that it was open to dialogue with the Sadrists and promised to treat members of the militia who honor the pledge “with respect and restraint” while cracking down on “criminals who violate the law and dishonor the commitment made by al-Sayyid Muqtada.”

American troops have continued to raid Shi’ite groups suspected to be supported and trained by Iran and splintered off from Sheik al-Sadr’s militia. That has angered some followers of Sheik al-Sadr, who also are frustrated with the Iraqi government, and they had argued an end to the cease-fire.

According to an Associated Press count, at least 609 Iraqi civilians and members of security forces died in Iraq last month, compared to 1,920 killed in January 2007.

Sheik al-Sadr issued his order to his fighters to stand down on Aug. 29, days after deadly clashes in the holy city of Karbala between the Mahdi Army and the rival Badr militia of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country’s largest Shi’ite party and a U.S. partner.

Violence continued yesterday as police reported at least 12 persons were killed in four bombings.

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