BAGHDAD - Moqtada al-Sadr kept the Iraqi nation on edge for two days, raising the possibility he would not renew a six-month cease-fire of his powerful Mahdi Army and that the country would plunge back into spasms of sectarian killing.
Then, in a dramatic touch, the Shi'ite cleric sent 200 sealed envelopes to be opened at yesterday's prayer services across Iraq. The answer was inside, he promised.
At his 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.
The answer was yes, the cease-fire will continue - a dramatic step likely to hold down American and Iraqi casualties while bolstering Sadr's importance as a political player in the Iraqi scramble for power.
"According to an order by Sayyid Moqtada, activities of the Mahdi Army will be suspended . . . for another six-month period," Sadr aide Hazim al-Aaraji said at the Kazimiyah mosque in Baghdad, using an honorific for the cleric.
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 means mid-August.
Along with an increase in US troop levels and a move by American-backed Sunni fighters to turn against their former Al Qaeda 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.
While the extension might help keep violence levels down, the daily toll from bombings and other attacks continued in Iraq yesterday.
A suicide bomber who struck as Sunni worshipers were leaving a mosque in the city of Amiriyah in Anbar Province did the most damage, killing four people. Anbar Province is a former Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold that has seen a drop in violence as Sunni groups there have switched allegiances.
Meanwhile, the US military said Iraqi soldiers discovered 15 bodies near the town of Kazim al-Isrhail, about 20 miles northeast of Baqubah in the second of two mass graves unearthed Thursday in the volatile Diyala Province. Nine other bodies also were found buried in a field in the Baqubah area, the military said.
Extending the cease-fire has multiple advantages for Sadr, who launched two major uprisings against coalition forces in 2004.
It enables 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 Shi'ite party and a US partner.
The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Sadr once supported but has turned away from, issued a statement saying that the "Sadr bloc is an essential cornerstone in the political process and in the new Iraq."
The cease-fire also does Sadr a favor by making him a player that the United States must continue to handle respectfully while he keeps peace. And he can always go back to fighting if he wants to play that card, though that might 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 US 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 Shi'ite civilians," Biddle said.