By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007
BAGHDAD, Aug. 30 -- Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr told his followers Thursday that he would rescind his order "freezing" the operations of his powerful militia if military raids on his offices did not cease in the next few days, according to officials of Sadr's organization.
Sadr's message came the day after he issued a public statement to his Mahdi Army to cease its operations for up to six months so he could restructure the group. But Sadr was forced to reconsider after a raid Thursday by U.S. and Iraqi forces on his office in the southern city of Karbala led to the deaths of six Mahdi Army members and the arrest of 30 others, the officials said.
"When you see the enemy is attacking you, you have to defend yourself," said Alaa Abid Jiaara, a Mahdi Army member in Sadr's headquarters in Kufa, about 90 miles south of Baghdad. "Today we have seen the occupation forces and Iraqi forces violate the Sadr followers and their offices and holy symbols. This means it is the duty of the followers of Sadr to defend against them."
Sadr had issued his edict on Wednesday, a day after battles between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, a rival Shiite group in southern Iraq, left at least 49 people dead. Sadr said the militia must be "restructured in a way that would retain for this ideological body its prestige."
The Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization have warred for months in southern Iraq, with each group seeking control of the oil-rich region. The Badr group's parent organization, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, controls the government in eight of nine southern provinces, but Sadr lives in the southern city of Najaf and commands a large following in the region.
On Thursday, some Mahdi Army members appeared to have heeded Sadr's direction to stand down. Mahdi Army checkpoints around Sadr City, the vast Shiite district in eastern Baghdad, had disappeared by morning, but fighters there and elsewhere said not everyone had stopped patrolling or planning violence against Sunnis, Americans and rival Shiites.
"Some elements followed the instructions, some did not," said Mustafa Ali, a Mahdi Army fighter in Sholah, in western Baghdad. "But the leaders are walking around explaining what the instructions mean and telling them that they should obey the leader because Moqtada knows what's best for us."
Iraqi and American military leaders said Sadr's order was unlikely to stop all Mahdi Army activities because scores of men operating in semiautonomous cells carry out violence and coercion in the cleric's name.
Meanwhile, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi announced plans for the release of prisoners being held without specific charges. Beginning this weekend, the government will release 50 prisoners each week, a number that Hashimi said would grow to 350 a week. About 1,700 prisoners are being detained without charges, a statement from his office said.
Sunni leaders, including Hashimi, have called for such releases, saying that the security forces of the Shiite-led government have unjustly detained many Sunnis. The releases are part of a package of reconciliation measures the country's top five political leaders signed Sunday.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. military announced that two soldiers had been killed in separate incidents. One was killed Thursday during combat operations in western Baghdad, and another died Wednesday in Diyala province after a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle. The deaths brought the number of U.S. troops killed in August to 81.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.