BAGHDAD, (AP) – Rockets or mortars hit the U.S.-protected Green Zone early Saturday, just a day after powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia to extend its cease-fire by another six months.
Starting about 6:15 a.m., nearly 10 blasts could be heard in the sprawling area along the Tigris River that houses the U.S. and British embassies, the Iraqi government headquarters and thousands of American troops.
Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman, confirmed the Green Zone was hit by indirect fire — the military’s term for a rocket or mortar attack — but could not immediately provide more details.
It was the fourth time this week that U.S. outposts in Baghdad appeared to be the targets of rocket or mortar attacks. The attacks have killed at least six people and wounded both Iraqis and Americans, including at least two U.S. troops.
The flurry of attacks has followed a substantial lull in such assaults as security has increased and violence around the capital has dropped over the last half-year.
The U.S. military blamed Iranian-backed Shiite militias that have broken away from al-Sadr’s block for the attacks earlier in the week. Tehran denies that it sponsors extremists in Iraq.
As the U.S. praised al-Sadr for extending his cease-fire, it also pledged to pursue the breakaway militias, which it calls “special groups.”
“Those who dishonor the Sadr pledge are regrettably tarnishing both the name and the honor of the movement,” it said. “Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces will continue to work closely with the Iraqi people to protect them from these criminals.”
Al-Sadr sent his message to scores of Shiite leaders around the country in sealed envelopes, instructing them to read out his decision on whether to lift or extend the cease-fire at Friday prayers.
“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 several 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 on Foreign Relations. “He’s less able to replace those losses this time given his militia’s increasingly criminal reputation among Shiite civilians.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel called al-Sadr’s decision a positive development. “We welcome any move that foreswears violence and encourages peaceful participation,” he said.
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 loathe to return to the worst days of sectarian violence when the monthly body count sometimes topped 2,000.