Al-Sadr extends cease-fire order

February 22, 2008 9:11:52 PM PST
Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opted Friday to keep the cease-fire order for his Mahdi Army militia in place for another six months, a step that will hold down U.S. and Iraqi casualties while bolstering al-Sadr's importance as a political player as Iraqi factions jostle for power. Opening a sealed statement from the firebrand leader, scores of Shiite clerics around the country read al-Sadr's message at Friday prayer services. In al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, thousands of men sat and listened attentively to the statement as green and black banners - symbols of his movement - waved in a brisk wind.

"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 at the Kazimiyah mosque in Baghdad, using an honorific for the cleric.

Al-Sadr offered "thanks and appreciation" to his followers and appreciation for "your understanding and your patience." The freeze was extended until the 15th of Shaban, a reference to the Islamic month before Ramadan, which would mean mid-August.

Along with an increase in U.S. troop levels and a move by American-backed Sunni fighters to turn against their former al-Qaida in Iraq allies, the cease-fire has been credited with reducing war deaths among Iraqis by nearly 70 percent in six months, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.

Extending it has multiple advantages for al-Sadr, who launched two major uprisings against coalition forces in 2004.

It enables al-Sadr to present himself as a shrewd political figure interested in reducing violence for all Iraqis and perhaps as a more popular alternative to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country's largest Shiite party and a U.S. partner.

The council's Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army have tangled in the nation's oil-rich south recently despite the cease-fire declaration last year. Aides to al-Sadr said at the time it was initially announced that he was concerned about sectarian violence escalating into full-fledged civil war.

The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom al-Sadr once supported but has turned away from, issued a statement saying that the "al-Sadr bloc is an essential cornerstone in the political process and in the new Iraq."

The cease-fire also does al-Sadr a favor by making him a player that the U.S. must continue to handle respectfully while he keeps the peace - and he can always go back to fighting if he wants to play that card, though that may not be his smartest move, one analyst said.

"I think Sadr's strategic self-interest is served by continuing the cease-fire in part because he'd take heavy losses in another fight with the U.S. military," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council for Foreign Relations.

"He's less able to replace those losses this time given his militia's increasingly criminal reputation among Shiite civilians."

Al-Sadr's announcement came two years to the day since the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra that unleashed Mahdi fury. Most Iraqis are now loath to return to the worst days of sectarian violence when the monthly body count sometimes topped 2,000.

A spokesman for the biggest Sunni bloc in Iraq's parliament commended al-Sadr for extending the cease-fire, calling it a wise move.

"I think it is a wise behavior by Muqtada and we appreciate that," Saleem Abdullah, a spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, told the AP. "In spite of that ... there should not exist any armed organization besides the official army."

U.S. officials called al-Sadr's decision a positive development.

"We welcome any move that foreswears violence and encourages peaceful participation," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

"We continue to encourage all sectarian militias to put aside their differences and constructively contribute to the stability of the central government and the security of all Iraqis," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

The U.S. military said 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."

Underscoring that point, the military announced that a "suspected special groups" cell leader was arrested Thursday in Baghdad. "Special groups" is the term the U.S. uses for Shiite factions that it says have broken away from al-Sadr and receive backing from Iran. The U.S. has blamed such groups for a flurry of deadly rocket attacks earlier this week in the Baghdad area. Tehran denies the allegations it is supporting the violence.

While the cease-fire extension may help keep violence levels down, the daily toll from bombings and other attacks continued in Iraq - setting aside an incursion by Turkey into the nation's northern region.

A suicide bomber who struck as Sunni worshippers were leaving a mosque in the city of Amiriyah in Anbar province did the most damage, killing four people. Anbar province is a former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold that has seen a drop in violence as Sunni groups there have switched allegiances.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said Iraqi soldiers discovered 15 bodies near the town of Kazim al-Isrhail, some 20 miles northeast of Baqouba - the second mass grave unearthed Thursday in the volatile Diyala province. Nine other bodies - six men and three women - also were found buried in a field in the Baqouba area, the military said.

Early Saturday, a series of rockets or mortars were fired toward the U.S.-protected Green Zone. Nearly 10 blasts were heard in the sprawling area in central Baghdad starting about 6:15 a.m., and the U.S. public address system there warned people to "duck and cover" and to stay away from windows.

Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman, confirmed the Green Zone was hit by indirect fire, the military's term for a rocket or mortar attack, but could not immediately provide more details.

U.S. attacks against Shiite splinter groups fed frustration among some al-Sadr followers, who had advised the cleric not to extend the cease-fire. But in the days leading up to al-Sadr's message, Sheik Jamal al-Sudani, one of his aides, had extolled fighting "by peaceful ways."

Following Friday's services in Sadr City, thousands of worshippers did just that.

They rallied against the republication by Danish newspapers of a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad - one of 12 cartoons that sparked major protests in Muslim countries in 2006. Protesters also took to the streets in the Shiite holy cities of Kufa and Najaf.

Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.

The protesters set U.S. and Danish flags on fire, then stomped out the flames once they were consumed.

Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.