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Powerful Iraqi Cleric Recalibrates Strategy

By Amit R. Paley and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 15, 2008

BAGHDAD, June 14 -- The movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said Saturday that it would not take part in provincial elections this year, one day after it formed a new paramilitary group to fight U.S. troops.

The back-to-back moves suggested that Sadr is trying to bolster his position as the chief opponent of both the American troops in the country and the Iraqi government, following a year in which he ordered his Mahdi Army militia to observe a cease-fire and moved deeper into the political process.

Sadr's aides said he is recalibrating his strategy as the American military drawdown transforms the U.S. role in Iraq.

"We don't want anybody to blame us or consider us part of this government while it is allowing the country to be under occupation," said Liwa Smeisim, head of the Sadr movement's political committee.

The announcement came as Iraqi officials deployed tens of thousands of security forces across southern Iraq in response to the creation of the new Sadr group. The new secret paramilitary wing, which Sadr called "the special companies," might start launching attacks within the next week, his aides said.

In the holy city of Najaf, officials said 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers were being put on high alert and deployed to protect the Imam Ali shrine and the grand ayatollahs. They said an additional 17,000 security forces were deployed in and around the nearby holy city of Karbala.

And in the eastern city of Amarah, a stronghold of the Sadr movement, Iraqi forces massed in preparation for an operation against Shiite militiamen. U.S. officials have said Amarah, the oil-rich capital of Maysan province, is used as a center for smuggling weapons from Iran.

Speaking about provincial elections, which are scheduled for this fall, aides to Sadr said the movement would support "technocrats and independent politicians" to prevent rival political parties from dominating local governments. But they said the movement would not put forward its own candidates.

"Sayyid Moqtada does not believe in elections or in the coming provincial governments as long as the occupation forces are here," said Salah al-Obaidi, a top aide to Sadr and his chief spokesman, using an honorific to signify Sadr's descent from the prophet Muhammad.

But some Iraqis saw both of Sadr's recent decisions as a sign of his movement's frailty following military offensives by the Iraqi and U.S. militaries against his supporters in the southern city of Basra and the Sadr City area of the capital.

Critics of Sadr say he is pulling out of the elections to avoid embarrassing losses and keeping most of the Mahdi Army from fighting so that it will not face defeat by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

"These statements and allegations of special companies are nothing but attempts to cover up their weakness," said Kassim Ali, 24, a student at the Kufa Technical Institute. "The Mahdi Army cannot face up to the well-trained and well-equipped Iraqi army."

Abu Zainab al-Garawie, the head of Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, said the newly formed special companies would assert their strength by launching attacks within a month, and possibly by next week.

Several top aides to Sadr said they would not be involved with the new group and said they knew nothing about it. Garawie said the members would have classified names and that some of their military activities might not be publicized.

Mohammad Saeed, 31, commander of a Mahdi Army company in Najaf, said thousands of militia members have been training "inside and outside Iraq." "We believe that now the time has come for these companies to be given the green light to achieve our aims," he said.

Several Mahdi Army fighters, who have been frustrated at the orders of the past year to stop fighting, welcomed the announcement and said they were eager for revenge against the American military and Iraqi forces that they believe have persecuted them.

"From now on, there will be violent unexpected actions that will astonish the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and even the occupation forces," he said. "Now we will be assigned to fight openly, and we will fight till the last drop of our blood."

Sarhan reported from Najaf.

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