Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr on Wednesday ordered his Mahdi Army militia to halt hostilities for six months to restore its credibility in the eyes of Iraqis shaken by a deadly outbreak of Shiite-on-Shiite violence.
The unexpected move by the fiery anti-U.S. Muslim leader, coupled with a vow to cease attacks on American forces in Iraq, may also have been aimed at elevating his standing among his countrymen and their neighbors by attempting to demonstrate that he has the power to make peace or destroy it.
"I direct the Mahdi Army to suspend all its activity for six months, until it is restructured in a way that helps honor the principles for which it was formed," Sadr said in a statement from his stronghold in Najaf.
The announcement came after deadly clashes between Shiite militias this week in the holy city of Karbala in which at least 52 people were killed and 300 injured. The fighting was blamed on Sadr's Mahdi militiamen and the rival Badr Organization, the armed wing of the country's biggest Shiite political force, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Sadr said he did not approve of the bloodshed and was halting militia operations to purge infiltrators and rogue elements engaging in attacks that discredit the populist force.
The militia has splintered into factions and needs to be "rehabilitated," Sadr aide Hazim Araji told Iraqi state television.
The freeze on operations was being ordered "without exception," Araji said.
Sadr's announcement seemed to quickly defuse tension in the capital. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims forced to evacuate Karbala because of the fighting and a security crackdown flooded into Baghdad in a noisy convoy of overloaded trucks, buses and cattle trailers.
Flags and banners proclaiming allegiance to Sadr fluttered from the teeming, horn-honking vehicles as they threaded checkpoints manned by Mahdi or Badr gunmen, bandoleers of ammunition across their chests and automatic rifles at the ready.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, flew to Karbala to survey the scene of the gun battle and discuss security with local officials. He fired the provincial security minister and ordered an investigation to expose the perpetrators.
Maliki's suggestion that remnants of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated Baath Party were to blame drew scorn in Baghdad as the latest example of his inability to properly identify and eradicate the roots of violence in Iraq.
"Maliki is only making matters worse with his interference and his visit" to Karbala and Najaf, said Nassar Rubaie, head of Sadr's parliamentary bloc.
Political analysts saw Sadr's pledge to lay down weapons as damage control after the Karbala clashes, which instilled terror across the country.
"Sadr is likely trying to deflect criticism for the clash in Karbala by blaming the event on rogue elements in the Mahdi Army," said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
Nasr said the Mahdi militia has been expanding and becoming better armed, probably with Iranian assistance, at the same time the U.S. has been building up its forces and counterinsurgency operations against Sunni militants in the last six months.
Mahdi and Badr gunmen have been moving south in preparation for the withdrawal of British troops from the major city of Basra. With the nation's most valuable oil assets seen as up for grabs, a battle for supremacy has been expected.
If the rival militias in the south continue to strengthen and become disconnected from the Maliki government, "then things may well fall apart completely," Nasr said, predicting a level of violence as yet unseen in more than four years of conflict.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said he had made inquiries about the clashes in Karbala and was assured by "the brothers of the Sadr movement" that the violence was committed by rogue elements and enemies who had infiltrated the militia with the aim of discrediting it.
Sadr's move also might have been encouraged by Iranian allies alarmed by the intra-Shiite strife, some officials theorize.
"I think Iran might have had a say in it," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament. "Iran is keen to have unity among the Shiites."
Othman predicted that the divergent views held in Baghdad and Washington on Iran's position in the region were likely to bring U.S. and Iraqi allies into confrontation.
"The United States considers Iran an enemy, while on the contrary the Iraqi government thinks of the Iranian government as a friend," Othman said.
With the increasingly sour state of relations between Washington and Tehran, he said, Iranian politicians need a cohesive Iraqi Shiite political front to work with to maintain and enhance their influence in Iraq, considering the presence of more than 160,000 U.S. troops in the country.
American military commanders here have accused rogue elements of Sadr's militia of collaborating with Iran to bring in armor-piercing munitions for use against U.S.-led troops.
Meanwhile, Iran responded with anger Wednesday to the detention by U.S. troops this week of eight Iranian officials at their hotel in Baghdad. Two Iranian diplomats and six members of a delegation from Tehran's Energy Ministry were blindfolded, handcuffed and taken from the Sheraton Ishtar for interrogation, then released without charges or explanation. A U.S. military statement said the men were detained after a routine stop at a checkpoint found three weapons among the group's Iraqi security guards, who lacked permits.
Tehran and Baghdad officials said the Iranians were advising Iraqi energy officials on how to improve electrical power generation, the most trying shortage Iraqi households face, especially as temperatures top 120 degrees.
"Iran presented its strong protest to U.S. behavior, which is contradictory to the international laws and regulations and asked for explanations," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini said in Tehran after officials lodged a protest via a Swiss diplomat who handles U.S. interests in the country, with which Washington has limited relations.
In Washington, a State Department official brushed off the incident as "just part of routine military operations in Baghdad."
"The issue was handled and looked at. The individuals have subsequently been released, and I think that's pretty much case closed," said Tom Casey, the department's deputy spokesman.
Iraqi politicians regarded the incident as a disturbing example of the limits on their independence imposed by the U.S. military presence.
"We are always asking the Americans not to influence our international relations, especially with Iran, and to respect the sovereignty of Iraq," said Jinan Jasim Ubaidi, a parliament member with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. American politicians tend to agree, she said, but "in the field military officials act differently."
President Bush, in a speech Tuesday in Reno, reiterated accusations that Iran supplies weapons and training to Shiite militants in Iraq.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his part, predicted that the U.S. military operation in Iraq would fail, leaving a power vacuum that Iran would be willing to help fill.
Tehran gave refuge to Shiites who now head the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council during the years of Hussein's repression of Iraq's majority Muslim sect, and Iran's ties to fellow Shiites in Iraq have been improving since the dictator was toppled in 2003 and executed last year.
Sadr's militia and political movement have grown in strength since shortly after U.S.-led troops invaded and a government was imposed that Sadr deemed illegitimate. But he has largely cooperated with the recent American troop buildup, standing down his gunmen so the beefed-up U.S. forces can eliminate his Sunni Arab insurgent enemies.
Sadr led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, then sought a share of legitimate power when his political movement won seats in parliament. He supported Maliki initially but broke with him this year over the failure to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Sadr's pledge to demobilize the Mahdi militia may also indicate that he fears Maliki has become too weak and could be replaced by someone over whom the cleric would have less influence. Among those most often mentioned as potential successors are former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former Baathist, and Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
The U.S. military Wednesday reported the death of an American soldier in fighting near Kirkuk the day before, bringing to 3,733 the number of American troops killed in the Iraq theater since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to icasualties.org.
Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Backstory
Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, a fiery Iraqi nationalist in his 30s who draws support among the poor and disenfranchised, is the son and son-in-law of leading clerics who were slain by Saddam Hussein's regime.
His rise to prominence after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 unsettled Shiite religious elders, many of whom saw him as a dangerous upstart. His followers led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 before opting to join the electoral process.
His political faction backed the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and gained control over six government ministries.
In April, Sadr's group began a boycott of the government to press for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Source: Times wire services