BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pulled back from confrontation with the government on Friday, asking his followers to continue to observe a shaky ceasefire and not to battle government troops.
Sadr, whose call for calm was read out in a major mosque in Baghdad, said a recent threat of “open war” was directed only at U.S. forces, not the Iraqi government. His comments could ease some of the tension that has been simmering in Iraq since Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki cracked down on Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia a month ago and threatened to ban his mass movement from provincial elections in October.
“You are the best who committed and were patient with the decision to cease fire, and were the most obedient to your leader. I wish you would continue your patience and your belief,” said Sadr’s statement.
“When we threatened ‘open war’ we meant a war against the occupier, not a war against our Iraqi brothers.”
A Reuters correspondent heard the statement read out by a cleric during Friday prayers in Sadr’s eastern Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.
Many of Sadr’s followers, who have been agitating for the ceasefire to be scrapped and say government and U.S. forces have used it to kill or arrest their members, were unhappy. “We were disappointed by the statement,” said Abu Yasir, a Mehdi Army commander. “We waited impatiently to end this ceasefire and this is the opposite of what we hoped.”
Other fighters chided Sadr for veering between confronting government forces one day and urging reconciliation the next. “He was supposed to give us a decisive solution: either we should end the ceasefire or we should stay at home and keep silent,” said Abu Aya, another commander, visibly angry.
Sadr first imposed the ceasefire on the Mehdi Army last August. It has been widely credited with helping cut violence in Iraq but seemed almost defunct at times over the past month.
Hundreds have died in Shi’ite areas since Maliki, himself a Shi’ite, launched a crackdown in the southern oil city of Basra. Although Basra has since become quieter, fighting has continued in Sadr City and other Shi’ite parts of Baghdad.
The U.S. embassy said Sadr should renounce all violence in order to secure a position in Iraqi politics. “We urge Sadr and his followers to desist from violence in all of its forms and against all persons, Iraqi or otherwise,” U.S. embassy spokesman Armand Cucciniello said. “We’re of course happy that he’s urging his followers to extend the ceasefire. But that he’s willing to extend the fight against the coalition isn’t something we’re supportive of.”
Though the Mehdi Army’s tens of thousands of fighters claim allegiance to Sadr, it has never been entirely clear how much control he exercises over a mass movement seen by many Iraqis as anarchic and undisciplined.
Another commander, Abu Ammar, said: “Despite being unhappy with the statement, we will obey Sadr because we revere him.”
In fresh violence in and around Sadr City, the U.S. military said it had killed 10 fighters in helicopter missile strikes and ground battles in eastern Baghdad overnight.
Two hospitals in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum said they received the bodies of 11 people killed in air strikes, all men. Another 74 people, including 9 women and 12 children, were wounded.
U.S. forces have so far taken control of only a small portion of Sadr City and say they have no plans to move deeper into it. But Iraq’s Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassim said his forces could strike into the slum at any time. “We are capable of launching a military operation in Sadr City whenever we want. But we have to consider the 2 million people who live there and what may happen to them in targeting a group who do not exceed 400 militants,” he told journalists.
The youthful but reclusive Sadr, who has millions of followers among Iraq’s poor urban Shi’ites, has a history of veering between open confrontation and conciliation. He launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, but then entered politics and backed Maliki’s rise to power in 2006.
Sadr split with Maliki a year ago demanding a timetable for U.S. troops to leave, then abruptly declared his ceasefire in August.
Maliki has threatened to bar Sadr’s movement from provincial elections on Oct. 1 if he does not disband the Mehdi Army.
Many of Sadr’s followers see the crackdown as an effort to sideline them before the polls and protect rival Shi’ite parties that support Maliki. The government says the campaign is intended to restore the rule of law in militia-held areas.