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Sadr Extends Truce In Iraq

Abu Moqtada, 40, a Mahdi Army fighter who gave only his nom de guerre, said Sadr's followers responded favorably after they heard his announcement inside a mosque in Sadr City: "Yes, yes, Moqtada," they chanted. "We will obey this order."

Wathiq Kassim, 32, an Interior Ministry employee who heard the decree read aloud at a Baghdad mosque, said extending the cease-fire would weed out "rogue" elements in the militia and boost the image of Sadr's movement.

"The goal is to prove to the world that Sadrists are peaceful people," Kassim said. "From now on, anyone who operates under the name of the Mahdi Army will be exposed as people who are not linked to the Mahdi Army. Those who are committed to this decision -- they are the real Mahdi Army."

Friday's extension came exactly two years after the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra that triggered waves of sectarian violence, much of it by the Mahdi Army. Last August, Sadr ordered the truce after deadly clashes involving his militia, Iraqi security forces and fighters of his main Shiite rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, in the southern holy city of Karbala.

Since then, the cease-fire has been credited with helping to reduce violence -- as have Sunni volunteer forces allied with the United States and the addition of thousands of American troops.

On Friday, Iraqi and U.S. officials viewed the extension of the cease-fire as emblematic of Sadr's political evolution. With the passage of a law last week that calls for provincial elections, they said, Sadr believes his movement could win against Iraq's current Shiite rulers, widely viewed by Iraqis as corrupt and inefficient. Last year, Sadr's loyalists withdrew from the government to distance themselves from it.

"They can compete either through the ballot box or through militias," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The Sadrists think they could make significant advances at the ballot box as part of a backlash at the perceived failures of the government. . . . They think they made a mistake in boycotting elections in 2005."

Even some Sunni politicians, who were suspicious of Sadr's motives, appear to be embracing his efforts to steer his movement away from violence. Alaa Maaki, a Sunni legislator with the Iraqi Islamic Party, said the Sadrists are engaging more politically and now meet regularly with representatives of his party.

"It's a good chance for them to come closer to political activities and leave militia activities," Maaki said. "They were really blamed for having many bad parts, but now we can see they have improved even though their militias had some of the worst criminals who were murdering the Sunni people."

Not all Sunnis are convinced. Aiman al-Obaidi, 27, a Sunni accountant, once supported Sadr and his nationalist ideals. But after the Samarra bombing, he began to hate the Mahdi Army. Eight months ago, he fled his home in Baghdad's volatile Sadiyah neighborhood, settling in Irbil, in Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

"Moqtada wants to regain support from Sunnis, but the problem is there are tens of gangs created under the name of Mahdi Army. They just want to kill and kidnap Sunnis for money," Obaidi said. "It is impossible he can regain his image amongst Sunnis because there is blood between us."

Iraqi government officials are eager to prevent Sadr from calling off the truce. On Friday, soon after the cease-fire was extended, Sadrists alleged that police and members of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council, burned down four houses in Diwaniyah that belonged to Sadr's followers.

"The prime minister sent a committee to investigate this today," said Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We're trying to stop the political parties from using the government forces to sort out their political differences," he added, referring to militia infiltration of security forces.

The U.S. military, too, is eager to capitalize on the extension. Those who honor Sadr's pledge "will be treated with respect and restraint," the U.S. military said in its statement, adding that it would welcome any opportunity to participate in dialogue with the Sadrists.

Qais al-Karbalai, a Mahdi Army commander in Karbala, warned that if attacks against Sadr's followers continue in the south, Sadr could change his mind.

"It's not like building a holy shrine. It's just a decision," Karbalai said. "Anytime there's harassment by the Americans and the government, Sayyid Moqtada can retreat from his pledge and use his army."

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Zaid Sabah and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Kufa contributed to this report.

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