February 21, 2008 in Nation/World

Al-Sadr may not renew commitment to cease-fire

Tina Susman and Raheem Salman Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD – Aides to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr cast doubt Wednesday on his commitment to extending a six-month cease-fire that expires this month, saying U.S. and Iraqi forces have not necessarily earned al-Sadr’s continued cooperation.

The comments raised the specter of a return to sectarian violence and an upsurge in attacks on U.S. forces at an especially delicate time. The United States is in the process of drawing down the additional 28,500 soldiers deployed last year and has banked on a continuation of al-Sadr’s cease-fire to help keep the peace as Americans depart.

But al-Sadr loyalists have said their foes are taking advantage of the cease-fire to try to crush the movement politically and militarily.

“We have made more than one gesture … however we haven’t received any help from the government,” said Ghufran Saidi, a lawmaker in the al-Sadr bloc. “The aim is to eliminate the al-Sadr movement in all provinces.”

Al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the U.S. presence whose followers have fought bloody battles with American forces, ordered his Mahdi Army militia to cease activities Aug. 29 after intra-Shiite fighting in the holy city of Karbala. Analysts and military officials described the cease-fire as an attempt to salvage al-Sadr’s reputation after the bloodshed in which 52 people were killed.

Since then, U.S. military officials, who once considered his fighters their worst enemies, have begun referring to the cleric as “the honorable” Muqtada al-Sadr and have thanked him for using his influence to reduce the violence.

They say the truce has contributed to a drop in attacks on U.S. forces and has reduced sectarian-based killings, which used to leave Baghdad’s streets strewn with as many as 30 bodies a day. Now, it is rare for police to report finding more than three bodies a day that are suspected victims of sectarian death squads.

At a news conference Wednesday, a U.S. military spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, said the United States remained optimistic the truce would last beyond its scheduled expiration date Saturday.

“We’ll deal with the contingencies of the what-if when it occurs, but as of today the cease-fire remains in place and we hope and expect it will continue,” Smith said.

But the message from al-Sadr’s office was that his patience had worn thin.

Al-Sadr aides cited military raids on the group’s strongholds, such as Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, and they accused U.S. and Iraqi security forces of targeting loyalists in southern provinces where the movement is vying for power with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The Council’s leader, Abdelaziz Hakim, is a U.S. ally. Scores of Iraqis have died in clashes involving al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Council’s Badr Organization.

In the August clashes, fighting erupted between the militias during a religious pilgrimage in Karbala. Al-Sadr called on his Mahdi Army to cease activities and said anyone violating the order would be expelled from the movement.

Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, al-Sadr’s spokesman, said the cleric, who rarely has appeared in public in the past year, would make a statement Saturday if he decided to extend the truce. If al-Sadr remains silent, al-Obeidi said, it would mean the Mahdi Army is back in action.

Nassar Rubaie, the head of the 30-member al-Sadr parliamentary bloc, said conditions on the ground would determine the cleric’s decision.

He said that despite “absolute obedience” by al-Sadr’s militia, it was suffering “the severest kinds of persecution and detentions” by security forces.

Al-Sadr’s loyalists have been particularly angered by recent raids in the provincial capitals of Karbala and Diwaniya, which they say have been carried out by security forces dominated by Badr Organization members. Clerics from al-Sadr’s movement have used weekly sermons to denounce the raids, which they say have forced hundreds of followers from their homes.

The development follows a sudden uptick in rocket attacks blamed on Shiite militias, whose members include former al-Sadr followers disgruntled with the cease-fire.

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