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."
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.