Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2008

Radical Shiite cleric announces another 6-month cease-fire

February 23, 2008

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Abbas Hussein sits in the ruins of his shop Friday in central Baghdad. A bomb planted under a horse pulled cart exploded, killing at least three and destroying some shops

Abbas Hussein sits in the ruins of his shop Friday in central Baghdad. A bomb planted under a horse pulled cart exploded, killing at least three and destroying some shops

U.S. Deaths

As of Friday, at least 3,969 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

— Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opted Friday to keep the cease-fire order for his Mahdi Army militia in place for another six months, a step that will hold down U.S. and Iraqi casualties while bolstering al-Sadr's importance as a political player as Iraqi factions jostle for power.

Opening a sealed statement from the firebrand leader, scores of Shiite clerics around the country read al-Sadr's message at Friday prayer services. In al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, thousands of men sat and listened attentively to the statement as green and black banners - symbols of his movement - waved in a brisk wind.

"According to an order by Sayyid Muqtada, activities of the Mahdi Army will be suspended ... for another six-month period," al-Sadr aide Hazim al-Aaraji said at the Kazimiyah mosque in Baghdad, using an honorific for the cleric.

Al-Sadr offered "thanks and appreciation" to his followers and appreciation for "your understanding and your patience." The freeze was extended until the 15th of Shaban, a reference to the Islamic month before Ramadan, which would mean mid-August.

Along with an increase in U.S. troop levels and a move by American-backed Sunni fighters to turn against their former al-Qaida in Iraq allies, the cease-fire has been credited with reducing war deaths among Iraqis by nearly 70 percent in six months, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.

Extending it has multiple advantages for al-Sadr, who launched two major uprisings against coalition forces in 2004.

It enables al-Sadr to present himself as a shrewd political figure interested in reducing violence for all Iraqis and perhaps as a more popular alternative to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country's largest Shiite party and a U.S. partner.

The council's Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army have tangled in the nation's oil-rich south recently despite the cease-fire declaration last year. Aides to al-Sadr said at the time it was initially announced that he was concerned about sectarian violence escalating into full-fledged civil war.

The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom al-Sadr once supported but has turned away from, issued a statement saying that the "al-Sadr bloc is an essential cornerstone in the political process and in the new Iraq."

The cease-fire also does al-Sadr a favor by making him a player that the U.S. must continue to handle respectfully while he keeps the peace - and he can always go back to fighting if he wants to play that card, though that may not be his smartest move, one analyst said.

"I think Sadr's strategic self-interest is served by continuing the cease-fire in part because he'd take heavy losses in another fight with the U.S. military," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council for Foreign Relations. "He's less able to replace those losses this time given his militia's increasingly criminal reputation among Shiite civilians."

Al-Sadr's announcement came two years to the day since the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra that unleashed Mahdi fury. Most Iraqis are now loath to return to the worst days of sectarian violence when the monthly body count sometimes topped 2,000.

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