BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his feared Mehdi Army on Thursday to maintain its six-month ceasefire as members of the militia clashed with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad.
Shi’ite Sadr’s spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi said the ceasefire, which expires later this month and has been vital to cutting violence in Iraq, should continue to be observed until militia members are told it is over or has been renewed.
Some members of Sadr’s bloc are pressuring him not to extend the Aug. 29 freeze on the Mehdi Army’s activities. “Any member of the Mehdi Army who conducts violent acts during the ceasefire, the Sadr office declares they will no longer be part of the Mehdi Army,” Sadr said in a statement read to Reuters by Ubaidi. He said Sadr had issued the statement in response to rumours the ceasefire was about to come to an end. He declined to say whether the ceasefire would be extended when its term lapses.
Attacks across Iraq have fallen by 60 percent since June 2007 after a series of security crackdowns. A return to hostilities could seriously jeopardise those gains.
Washington has been urging Iraq to take advantage of improved security and move ahead with a series of laws aimed at reconciling majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni Arabs.
But several of those laws, including the 2008 budget and another that would release thousands of mainly Sunni Arabs from Iraqi jails, remained deadlocked. “The delay in the budget is harming everyone,” Iraq’s Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi told a news conference.
Votes which had been expected on Thursday did not take place. Lawmakers have refused to ratify the $48 billion budget because of disputes over allocations, mainly the 17 percent for the largely autonomous and stable Kurdistan region.
Taha al-Luhaiba of the Sunni Arab Accordance Front said a vote could take place on Sunday or Monday, but Muna Zalzah, a finance committee member from the Shi’ite Alliance, feared the budget might not be voted on for at least another week.
Some fear that failure to pass the budget would hold up vital spending at a time when Washington is urging the government to take advantage of improved security and jumpstart the oil-dependent economy. “Even if the parliament voted today, the budget will not be implemented until March. We have lost a lot of time,” Abdul-Mahdi said.
The law that would free prisoners who have not been charged with or convicted of major crimes like murder or treason is also seen as a step towards reconciliation because most of the 23,000 people held in Iraqi jails are Sunni Arabs.
Freeing prisoners has been one of the preconditions for the Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab bloc, to return to cabinet after it quit last month, fracturing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led unity government. But Luhaibi said new disagreements had delayed that law, with his bloc wanting it expanded to include provisions for new trials for prisoners who may have made forced confessions.
Amid signs of growing restlessness, police said Mehdi Army fighters had clashed with Iraqi and U.S. soldiers early on Thursday in Sadr City, the sprawling Shi’ite slum in northeast Baghdad which is one of Sadr’s power bases. They said three people, including a woman and a child, were hurt in the clashes and 16 detained. A U.S. military spokesman said one person was killed and another injured in the raids.
Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, ordered the Mehdi Army ceasefire so he could reorganise the splintered militia. Ubaidi has said Sadr is gauging the mood of senior figures before deciding whether to extend the truce. There have been growing signs of unease within Sadr’s camp, with members claiming they are targeted by security forces.
U.S. commanders have said they are confident Sadr would extend the freeze, although U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to target “rogue” Mehdi Army units.