Monday, September 03, 2007


Al-Sadr aide - Mahdi Army freeze could end if arrests and raids don't stop

(AP) -- Muqtada al-Sadr's surprise decision to stand down his Mahdi Army for up to six months was designed to stop a Shiite-Shiite rift from spiraling out of control and to weed out infiltrators in his militia's ranks, according to aides of the radical Shiite cleric. Al-Sadr issued his surprise declaration last Wednesday following two days of deadly clashes in the holy city of Karbala between his Mahdi Army and the rival Badr militia of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country's largest Shiite party and a U.S. partner.
Involvement in inter-Shiite fighting has hurt the image of al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, chipping away at the young cleric's reputation as an uncompromising nationalist leader seeking to restore Iraq's full sovereignty and undermining his bid to become a national leader. Al-Sadr also realizes that a full-fledged fight against Badr and the Iraqi security forces is likely to draw the Americans into battle, threatening his Mahdi Army with a rout similar to that of 2004 when thousands of his militiamen were killed.
For all those reasons, it was better for al-Sadr to take a principled stand for Shiite unity and suspend his militia's activities - at least for the time being. To promote unity, it is better to blame the Americans than rivals in the Shiite community. Sheik Salman al-Feraiji, al-Sadr's chief representative in Baghdad's Sadr City district, said the suspension was meant to foil an "American plot" to sow division within Iraq's majority Shiites.
"They drove a wedge between Shiites and Sunnis and now they want a Shiite-Shiite rift," al-Feraiji said as he sat late Saturday in a large tent to receive condolences for the Karbala victims. Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, al-Sadr's spokesman in Najaf, also said the suspension was aimed at preventing rifts among Shiites, which exploded in Karbala. Al-Obeidi said the freeze would allow time to rid the Mahdi Army of "groups working for foreign security agencies." He did not elaborate. "These groups deliberately left traces that led back to the Mahdi Army. We do not want what happened in Karbala to spread to the rest of the country," he said.
In announcing his decision, al-Sadr did not say explicitly whether his fighters would suspend attacks on Americans. Some aides said they would halt such attacks, but others disputed that interpretation of the order.
Al-Sadr's anti-American policies have kept his movement together as a nationalist force, unlike most other Shiite parties that are closely tied to Washington. To maintain that nationalist stand, al-Sadr apparently avoided an explicit, public ban on attacking U.S. and other foreign troops.
A firebrand who burst on the political scene in 2003, al-Sadr has a track record of making ambivalent statements or leaving out key details. Sometimes that has been interpreted as a sign of his movement's lack of a comprehensive political vision. In some cases, it has been seen as a deliberate bid to give him leeway to change policies. However, in the four days since he made his announcement, Mahdi Army militiamen have been lying low and the number of bodies of sectarian violence victims - often blamed on the militia - has dramatically dropped.
The U.S. military welcomed al-Sadr's move. But it appears the U.S. has no plans to reciprocate, continuing raids to capture suspected Mahdi militants that American commanders say are linked to Iran or involved in sectarian violence. The raids led to a stern warning late Saturday by one of al-Sadr's prominent lawmakers, Bahaa al-Araji, who told Alhurra television that the "freeze" could end "within a day or two" if the raids and arrests did not stop.

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