Thursday, August 30, 2007

Anti-American Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr yesterday ordered a six-month “freeze” of activities by his Mahdi Army militia, a force accused of attacking U.S.-led coalition forces and operating “death squads” targeting the country’s Sunni Arab minority.

U.S. officials greeted the announcement with caution, but the move could provide a significant boost for the security “surge” now under way in Baghdad and other parts of the country. Aides to Sheik al-Sadr confirmed the young cleric’s order included a ban on all attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in the country.

“We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months,” Sheik Hazim al-Araji, a top aide to Sheik al-Sadr, said in a statement read on Iraqi television.

The announcement comes in a week in which intense street battles in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala killed more than 50 people. Authorities blamed the fighting on intra-Shi’ite rivalries between the Mahdi Army and other militias, principally the Badr Brigade, for the control of key mosques and other sites in the city.

The 34-year-old Sheik al-Sadr, the son of a leading Shi’ite cleric killed by Saddam Hussein, has played an ambiguous role in post-Saddam Iraq. He is a fierce critic of the U.S. and international troop presence in Iraq, and Mahdi Army fighters clashed twice with American forces in 2004.

Elements of the Mahdi Army are blamed for sectarian violence targeting Sunnis in Baghdad and for clashes with other Shi’ite militias angling for control in the south. Sheik al-Sadr has disappeared from public view for long stretches of time, and U.S. officials say he has spent at least some time in Iran.

The cleric restricted his adversarial role to the American occupation until the Sunni bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra on Feb. 22, 2006. Soon thereafter the sectarian strife between Shi’ites and Sunnis escalated sharply.

The Pentagon last year named the Mahdi Army as the single biggest threat to Iraq’s long-term security — ahead even of al Qaeda and violent Sunni insurgent groups.

But Sheik al-Sadr has also worked with the elected government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and ordered his fighters not to resist President Bush’s recent “surge” of U.S. and Iraqi troops to quell violence in the capital.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey, reacting cautiously to news of Sheik al-Sadr’s decision to pause hostilities, said: “Statements have been made by Muqtada al-Sadr in the past and sometimes we’ve seen an impact and sometimes we haven’t.”

But the Mahdi Army is the largest of the sectarian militias, considered a prime threat to the authority of the al-Maliki government, despite the fact that Sheik al-Sadr is a strong supporter of the government.

“The existence of these kinds of militia groups outside the security forces and structures of Iraq is something that needs to change,” Mr. Casey said.

Some speculated that Sheik al-Sadr was struggling to regain control of the organization, which has broken into smaller military and criminal gangs as the security situation has deteriorated.

But the violence in Karbala this week also appears to have shaken Sheik al-Sadr’s image. Aides originally denied that Mahdi Army fighters were involved in the clashes, which also involved the Badr Brigade, the other leading Shi’ite militia forces in Iraq. The statement read yesterday by Sheik al-Araji made clear that Sheik al-Sadr had no intention of disbanding his private army, as U.S. military officials have demanded.

“The aim is to reorganize the militia but not to dismantle it,” he said.

Separately, the Iranian government formally protested yesterday after U.S. forces in Baghdad detained eight members of a visiting Iranian Energy Ministry delegation in town for contract talks with the Iraqi government.

The eight were released yesterday.

U.S. military officials said the Iranians were held briefly because Iraqi security guards traveling with them were carrying guns without a permit. But the detentions came amid growing tension between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s suspected interference in Iraq.

Mr. Casey said the incident was a “routine and isolated” one in which U.S. troops followed standard procedures while operating a long-standing checkpoint.

“People should not try to read anything more into it than that,” he said.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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