Sadr Extends Truce In Iraq

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 23, 2008

BAGHDAD, Feb. 22 -- Anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia on Friday to extend a cease-fire for six months, a decision designed to bolster his stature and power but one that U.S. and Iraqi officials hope will also increase stability in Iraq.

Sadr's order, read aloud at Shiite mosques across the nation during afternoon prayers, marked another step in his transformation from guerrilla chieftain to political leader. Senior U.S. officials immediately welcomed his decision, underscoring how vital the 34-year-old cleric has become to the United States and its exit strategy for Iraq.

"The continuation of the cease-fire is an important commitment by al-Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr that holds the potential for a further reduction in violence in Iraq," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said by e-mail, referring to Sadr with an honorific used for descendants of the prophet Muhammad.

A U.S. military statement said the six-month extension "will also foster a better opportunity for national reconciliation and allow the coalition and Iraqi security forces to focus more intensively on al-Qaeda terrorists" -- members of the Sunni insurgent group that many U.S. commanders say remains the greatest threat to peace in Iraq.

Sadr's decision reflects Iraq's transition away from violence and toward a more peaceful politics. Attacks on Shiite areas have fallen since many Sunni insurgents began allying with U.S. troops against religious extremists. At the same time, Sadr is facing growing competition from his Shiite rivals in southern Iraq. Extending the cease-fire could help improve his political standing as a would-be nationalist capable of leading Iraq when U.S. troops leave.

But Sadr's ability to enforce the truce hinges on his control over the unruly, decentralized militia. Many senior Mahdi Army leaders and politicians loyal to Sadr have called for the cease-fire to be lifted because they said it was being exploited by Iraqi and U.S. forces, and Sadr's political rivals, to arrest his followers. In some areas of Baghdad, militiamen have ignored Sadr's orders and continued to commit atrocities.

At Sadr's gold-domed mosque in the southern holy city of Kufa, several thousand followers packed into the open courtyard as a preacher read aloud the statement from Sadr.

"If you want to help me, do as you are ordered and implement what I am going to say, for I am ordering virtue and banning vice," Sadr said in the statement. "I fear the day of judgment, so I cannot tolerate the disobedience of the disobedient, nor the sins of the sinners, nor the crimes of the criminals."

Afterward, signs of discontent were visible. Some followers shook their heads and appeared frustrated as they left the mosque. Tears welled in the eyes of some militiamen from Diwaniyah, where Iraqi security forces have detained or displaced hundreds of Sadr followers amid allegations of abuse and torture.

"This is a huge shock," said Bassim Zain, 27, one of the militiamen from Diwaniyah. "We were expecting that Sayyid Moqtada will end the freeze in order to defend ourselves."

Another militiaman, Jassim Ali, 36, predicted that his comrades under pressure in Baghdad, Diwaniyah, Karbala and Basra "will be obliged to defend themselves. They will not be committed to this decision. This new decision will be an opportunity for the government and the occupiers who are against the Mahdi Army."

Other senior militia leaders vowed to obey. "We wanted the freeze to be lifted, but we are obedient and loyal to Moqtada Sadr," said Laith al-Sadr, a Mahdi Army commander in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad. "We will be patient. We know this path is filled with oppression, but eventually there will be an end for everything."

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