Al-Sadr Looks to Lie Low, Outlast U.S.

The Associated Press
Saturday, February 10, 2007; 2:44 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Their rhetoric is still stridently anti-American, but Mahdi Army militiamen are tucking away their weapons and blending into civilian life. Their leaders are keeping out of sight.

In the streets of Sadr City, the strategy of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite militia leader, is clear: Lie low, avoid a showdown and hope to emerge even stronger after the Americans leave.

Gathered for prayers this week, at least 10,000 al-Sadr supporters raised clenched fists and chanted "No, No to America." Later, a black-turbaned cleric addressed them, dressed in a white shroud to signal readiness for martyrdom.

"They claim that the Mahdi Army is made up of terrorists," Mohanad al-Moussawi said mockingly before delivering a tirade against Sunni political groups he accused of sponsoring terrorism.

Religious ceremonies charged with fiery rhetoric are common among al-Sadr loyalists. But with a massive U.S.-Iraqi security operation getting under way to pacify Baghdad, the Mahdi Army and its political masters are sending out assurances that it has no wish to fight.

A ragtag but highly motivated militia that fought U.S. forces twice in 2004, the Mahdi Army is blamed for much of the sectarian strife shaking Iraq since a Shiite shrine was bombed by Sunni militants a year ago. U.S. officials have for months pressed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move against the militia, but he has so far done little to comply, largely because he does not want to lose al-Sadr's support.

Suggesting that al-Maliki's reluctance to act against Shiite militiamen endures, U.S. military officers told The Associated Press that their Iraqi counterparts were urging them to go after Sunni targets as the first focus of the military push to secure Baghdad.

They said the Iraqis, especially representatives of the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, played down the threat posed by the Mahdi Army, the biggest Shiite militia, blamed for much of the violence against Sunnis. The American officers spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.

Salam al-Zubaie, one of two al-Maliki deputies and a Sunni, told the U.S.-funded Alhurra television Saturday that he would prefer to see the military sweep in Baghdad simultaneously target Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. "This will reinforce confidence in the government by all sects of the Iraqi people," he said.

Hundreds of Mahdi Army militiamen were killed in the 2004 fighting, but al-Sadr bounced back, joining the political process, rebuilding his militia but not softening his anti-American rhetoric.

With his militia now widely seen as the main threat to Iraq's unity and high on the list of targets for the Baghdad security operation, al-Sadr is likely to do all he can to dodge a crippling blow to his militia, analysts say.

Residents of Sadr City, a sprawling district of some 2 million Shiites in eastern Baghdad, say militiamen opting to remain in the area have moved in with relatives and friends to avoid arrest.

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