BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Iraq’s government said it hoped a decision this week by fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to freeze the activities of his Mehdi Army will lead other militias to follow suit.
In a statement, the office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki welcomed Sadr’s order to stop armed action for up to six months. “This initiative is an encouraging step towards preserving security and stability … and is a good opportunity to freeze the work of other militias regardless of their political and ideological affiliation,” said the statement, seen on Friday.
Maliki has long urged Iraq’s various political groups to disarm their militias, but the call has been ignored.
The suspension order from the anti-American cleric on Wednesday came a day after dozens of people were killed in gunbattles involving Mehdi Army fighters at a Shi’ite pilgrimage in the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala.
Maliki has blamed “outlawed armed criminal gangs from the remnants of the buried Saddam regime” for the violence.
The statement said government forces were not targeting Sadr’s followers in Kerbala in the wake of the violence, an apparent reference to the detention of more than 70 people.
A senior Sadr aide said on Thursday the order to stop armed actions might only last a week if American and Iraqi forces did not stop detaining the cleric’s followers.
U.S. forces have raided the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad repeatedly in past weeks, targeting fighters they say have links to neighbouring Iran.
Sadr’s aides have said the suspension order was designed to allow Sadr to weed out rogue elements from the militia, but analysts said the test would be whether his fighters obeyed.
The government statement said the Sadr movement was “considered one of basic political blocs in Iraq and will remain an active and a real partner in the political process”.
Armed followers of Sadr have stayed off the streets following his surprise announcement. But many have said they would fight U.S. troops if provoked.
Sadr, a youthful cleric with a mass following among Iraq’s mpoverished urban Shi’ites, set up the Mehdi Army in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
A year later, Sadr led his militia in two uprisings against U.S. forces before getting involved in mainstream politics. He played a key role in Maliki’s rise to power in 2006.