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Iraqi Cleric: Militia in `freeze'

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By BASSEM MROUE
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; 5:11 PM

BAGHDAD -- Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took his Mahdi Army out of action for up to six months Wednesday to overhaul the feared Shiite militia _ a stunning move that underscores the growing struggles against breakaway factions with suspected ties to Iran.

A spokesman for al-Sadr said the order also means the Mahdi Army would suspend attacks against U.S. and other coalition forces.

But it's unclear how much influence al-Sadr still wields over Shiite groups blamed for waves of attacks, including powerful roadside bombs that remain the chief killer of U.S. troops. American officials, meanwhile, reacted with skepticism and urged al-Sadr to show tangible steps to rein in his fighters.

The announcement by al-Sadr _ who formed the militia after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 _ appeared aimed at distancing himself from suspected Iranian-backed Mahdi factions he can no longer control. It also sought to deflect criticism for his followers' perceived role in this week's fighting in Karbala that aborted a Shiite religious festival and claimed more than 50 lives.

Thousands of pilgrims fled in terror as fighting erupted Tuesday between Mahdi Army members and security forces linked a rival Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade.

The battles are part of wider power struggles by armed Shiite groups for control of the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, which includes major religious shrines and most of the country's vast oil riches. The splintering of the Mahdi Army has opened new fronts across the south.

In a statement, al-Sadr said he would "freeze" the Mahdi Army "for a period not exceeding six months." The goal, the statement said, is to reorganize the force "in such a manner that would maintain and preserve the prestige of this symbol of the faith."

A spokesman for al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Shaibani, told reporters that the Mahdi Army also was "suspending the taking up of arms against occupiers as well as others."

Iraq's national security adviser welcomed al-Sadr's announcement and said the Shiite-dominated government was "waiting for concrete results on the ground."

"The contents of the statement as we heard it are good," Mouwaffak al-Rubaie told Alhurra television. "We welcome it and believe that if implemented to the letter. It will have a huge effect on the level of violence in Iraq."

But the effects of al-Sadr's announcement were far from clear, and it received a cooler reception in Washington and among military commanders in Baghdad.

"What really matters here is actions, and so those are the measures of merit that we'll be watching for," U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said in an AP Broadcast interview.


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