Sadr Orders 'Freeze' on Militia Actions

Charred carcasses of cars line a street in the holy city of Karbala a day after fighting disrupted a Shiite religious festival and left almost 50 people dead.
Charred carcasses of cars line a street in the holy city of Karbala a day after fighting disrupted a Shiite religious festival and left almost 50 people dead. (Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 30, 2007

BAGHDAD, Aug. 29 -- The powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr publicly ordered his huge militia Wednesday to "freeze" operations for up to six months, but U.S. and Iraqi officials expressed skepticism of the cleric's intentions and his ability to control the fractured network of fighters who kill in his name.

Sadr issued his order following a day of Shiite-against-Shiite gunfire that killed 49 people during a religious ceremony in the holy city of Karbala. In a statement, he said the freeze would apply to his Mahdi Army militia "without exception in order to have it restructured in a way that would retain for this ideological body its prestige."

Some officials interpreted the statement to mean Sadr had called off attacks on U.S. soldiers as well as Iraqi opponents, but a source close to Sadr said some fighting would continue in the name of "self-defense."

"This does not cover all military activities because there are violations being done by the occupation forces every now and then and we expect that these violations will continue in the future, and in these cases the Mahdi Army members will defend themselves," said the source, who spoke from Sadr's headquarters in the southern city of Najaf. "This decision was made in effect to calm things down, especially in Karbala."

Tuesday's street fighting took place as hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims milled around Karbala during a festival marking the birthday of a 9th century Shiite imam.

By official accounts, the fighting pitted government security forces against unidentified gunmen. But many people in Karbala described it as a battle between the two main Shiite militias vying for power in southern Iraq, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Officials from both groups condemned the bloodshed and denied that their fighters had taken part.

Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, said that neither the Karbala governor and police chief nor the shrine guards involved in the fighting are members of his organization. He and Sadr aides said that outlaw fighters who claim to be members of the Mahdi Army mounted the attacks.

"These undercover Baathists were trying to create strife and draw the matter into a Shiite-versus-Shiite battle between the Sadr followers and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council," Amiri said in an interview.

The government evacuated thousands of people from Karbala, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared an indefinite curfew in the city following the violence. Touring the city, home to two shrines central to the beliefs of Shiite Muslims, Maliki declared that order had been restored.

But retaliatory violence broke out at Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council offices in Baghdad and several southern cities, with some of the offices burned and ransacked. Six Badr members died in the fighting and four others were injured, Amiri said.

The legions of Shiite men who claim to be members of the Mahdi Army are described by Iraqi and U.S. officials as a relentless force in killing and displacing Sunnis, running extortion schemes and expanding Shiite dominance in Baghdad. Sadr's organization has also opened dozens of offices to provide social services to Shiites.

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