- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - An anti-U.S. Shiite cleric in Iraq has renewed a call to his followers to renounce violence.

Muqtada al-Sadr had ordered most of his Mahdi Army militiamen to lay down their arms to form a new social welfare network, although he retained a small fighting force.

He praised the new organization in a statement Wednesday by his office in the holy city of Najaf.

He expresses hope it “will continue to denounce violence and raise science and culture as a weapon.”

Al-Sadr is believed to be in Iran.

The statement comes as he tries to position himself as a political force ahead of national elections expected later this year.

He also faces a challenge from breakaway Shiite militia groups that continue to stage attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

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