Fate of Iraqi cease-fire hangs on cleric's word, to come today

Marchers carried a poster of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad. His letter was to be read at mosques today. Marchers carried a poster of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad. His letter was to be read at mosques today. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print| Text size + By Qassim Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press / February 22, 2008

BAGHDAD - Radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has decided whether to extend his Mahdi Army's cease-fire, and sent the message in sealed envelopes to be opened at the beginning of today's sermons, one of his officials said.

Although the content of the message, delivered yesterday to 200 loyal clerics around Iraq, was not known, there were strong indications from officials in his organization that the anti-American firebrand would extend the six-month cessation of what had been an undeclared war against the US military since 2004.

The cease-fire has been one of three important factors that have helped reduce violence since mid-2007. The two others are the influx of thousands of US troops last summer, and emergence of Sunni-dominated groups that are fighting against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In the latest violence, the US military announced the deaths of five soldiers and a Marine, and a roadside bombing wounded four British troops in the southeastern city of Basra, followed by clashes. Police and morgue officials also said a grave with 15 bodies was found in an orchard elsewhere in the same province.

The US deaths included three soldiers killed Tuesday night by a roadside bomb in northwestern Baghdad; one soldier killed and three wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the northwestern city of Mosul; and a soldier killed by a roadside bomb who was assigned to Multinational Division-Center, which is responsible for territory south of Baghdad.

The Marine was killed yesterday in fighting in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad.

In a separate development yesterday, the office of Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq's Sunni vice president, said he has signed off on a draft of an amnesty law, one of three key pieces of legislation that Parliament passed last week.

The measure has yet to be signed by the other two members of the presidency council, President Jalal Talabani and the Shi'ite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It would grant limited amnesty to detainees in Iraqi custody.

Also yesterday, the Turkish military shelled Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq, days after Ankara said it was weighing a ground operation against the guerrillas, Reuters reported, quoting Kurdish officials. An Iraqi border official said a bridge was destroyed in Nerva Rikan, an area close to Iraq's border with Turkey in Dahuk province.

Turkey has massed tens of thousands of troops along its frontier with Iraq and has carried out several small-scale, cross-border commando operations and aerial bombing raids against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.

The message from the elusive Sadr was expected to be read during prayers in the southern city of Kufa and in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, both strongholds of his powerful Mahdi Army militia.

According to one Iraqi legislator loyal to Sadr, the message was sent with strict instructions not to open it until the midday weekly Islamic services. The legislator spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

"No one can predict what the decision will be - whether it will be an extension of the freeze or not," he said.

Earlier in the week, a Sadr spokesman had said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement, then the cease-fire would automatically be lifted.

In a show of force ahead of the expiration of the cease-fire, thousands of Mahdi Army members marched through the streets of Sadr City yesterday, unarmed but dressed in black with green kerchiefs.

The march was ostensibly to celebrate battles against US military forces in 2004, when the militia fought them to a standstill in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf and Sadr City.

Sheik Jamal al-Sudani, the head of the local Sadr media office, addressed a crowd in the thousands with nonviolent rhetoric.

"We have to fight by peaceful ways," he said. "We have to think of another way to martyrdom, this time not by attack or assassination but by a doctrinal stand."

But some Mahdi Army members were prepared for any eventuality.

"If he lifts the freeze, then according to army standards it's war," said Abu Ali al-Rubaie, a local commander. He said that would mean Mahdi Army members would fight against any American attempting to arrest their members.

"Now they are going in and arresting people and they don't fight back. If he lifts the freeze then they will fight," Rubaie said.

Some of Sadr's followers, frustrated by US raids against what the Americans term splinter groups from the Mahdi Army, have called for their leader to put his fighters back on the streets.

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