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After deadly clash, Iraq cleric orders gunmen to stand down

Move interpreted as bid to restore militia's credibility

Family members grieved yesterday for a relative who died in clashes that broke out this week during religious celebrations in Karbala, Iraq. At least 52 people were killed and 300 hurt. Family members grieved yesterday for a relative who died in clashes that broke out this week during religious celebrations in Karbala, Iraq. At least 52 people were killed and 300 hurt. (Alaa al-Marjani/Associated Press)

BAGHDAD -- Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr yesterday ordered his Al Mahdi Army gunmen to halt all hostilities for six months so he can restore the militia to credibility in the eyes of Iraqis shaken by a deadly outbreak of Shi'ite-on-Shi'ite violence.

The stunning move, coupled with a vow by Sadr to cease attacks on US forces in Iraq, may also have been aimed at elevating his standing with Iraqis and their neighbors by demonstrating that he has the power to make peace or to 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 followed a deadly clash in the holy city of Karbala earlier this week that killed at least 52 people and injured 300. The fighting was blamed on his Mahdi militiamen and their rivals within the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the country's biggest Shi'ite political force, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Sadr denied that he had sanctioned the bloodshed and said he 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," a Sadr aide, Hazim al-Araji, told Iraqi state TV. The freeze in operations was being ordered "without exception," Araji said.

The decision to stand down seemed to quickly defuse fear and tension in the capital, as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims forced to leave Karbala by 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 rippled from the teeming, horn-honking vehicles as they threaded checkpoints manned by both Mahdi and Badr gunmen.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flew to Karbala to survey the scene of the battle and to discuss security with local officials. He sacked the provincial security minister and ordered an investigation to expose the perpetrators of the bedlam.

But Maliki's suggestion that remnants of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated Ba'ath Party were to blame drew scorn in Baghdad as another example of his inability to properly identify and eradicate the roots of violence in Iraq.

"Al-Maliki is only making matters worse with his interference and his visit" to Karbala and Najaf, said Nassar Rubaie, head of Sadr's parliamentary faction.

Political analysts saw Sadr's pledge to lay down weapons as damage control after the Karbala clashes instilled terror across the country and the long-feared prospect of multifactional civil war loomed on the cusp of reality.

"Al-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 studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He said that since a US troop buildup began six months ago and its counterinsurgency operations have stepped up the pressure on Sunni militants, the Mahdi militia has been expanding and becoming better armed, probably with Iranian assistance.

Both Mahdi and Badr gunmen have been moving south in preparation for the withdrawal of British troops from Basra and an expected battle for supremacy once the nation's most valuable oil assets are seen as up for grabs.

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 unseen in more than four years of conflict.

Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said he had made inquiries into the clashes in Karbala and was assured by "the brothers of the al-Sadr movement" that the violence was committed by rogue elements and enemies who have infiltrated the militia with the aim of discrediting it.

Sadr's move might also have been encouraged by Iranian allies alarmed by the intra-Shi'ite strife.

"I think Iran might have had a say in it. Iran is keen to have unity among the Shi'ites," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian. Othman predicted that the divergent views held in Baghdad and Washington on Iran's position in the region was likely to bring US and Iraqi allies into confrontation.

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