Iraq's radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army to stop operations Thursday. The militia is accused of killing thousands of Iraqi Sunnis, and was considered the greatest threat to the country's stability.
Radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Thursday ordered a halt to armed operations by his 60,000-strong Mahdi Army militia, blamed by Washington for some of the worst sectarian killings of Sunni Arabs in the war-torn country.
"The Mahdi Army suspension will be valid indefinitely and anyone who does not follow this order will not be considered a member of this group," Sadr said in a statement issued by his office in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf.
The militia, created after the 2003 US-led invasion to fight invading American troops, became the most active and feared armed Shiite group in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, accused of operating death squads blamed for the killings of thousands.
In 2006, at the height of Iraq's communal bloodletting, a Pentagon report said the Mahdi Army was the greatest threat to the country's security, even greater than Al-Qaeda.
At that time Mahdi Army death squads reportedly carried out sustained campaigns of violence -- kidnapping, torturing and brutallly killing members of the minority Sunnis Arab community across Iraq, especially in Baghdad.
Dozens of tortured and bullet-riddled bodies of Sunni Arabs used to be found dumped on the capital's streets, allegedly killed by Mahdi militiamen.
The US military cautiously welcomed Sadr's decision.
"We welcome this announcement that appears to be an effort to support the Iraqi people," military spokesman Major John Hall told AFP. "The proof is always in the actions and not just in words."
Sadr said the militia would now focus more on cultural programmes.
"We have set a cultural programme for the Mahdi Army and we have named it Al-Mumahidun (Supporters of the Mahdi), and everybody should abide by it and whoever does not agree with it will be expelled from the army."
He did not immediately give reasons for his decision which came after he promised earlier this month to dismantle the militia if a planned security pact between Baghdad and Washington provides for the withdrawal of US troops.
The two sides are still negotiating the pact that would govern US troop levels and allow them to operate after a UN mandate expires at the end of the year.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said this week that they had agreed there would be no foreign forces in Iraq after 2011, setting a timeline for a US withdrawal.
The White House has repeatedly said no deal has been finalised.
Sadr ordered a six-month freeze of Mahdi Army activities in August last year after allegations his fighters had been involved in clashes with security forces in the shrine city of Karbala.
He extended the freeze for a further six months in February.
A key Sadr aide said the latest announcement served to renew the existing freeze, as well as to ensure plans to turn the Mahdi Army into a social organisation are actually carried out.
"We want to transform as large a number as we can of Mahdi Army fighters into a social organisation," Sheikh Hazem al-Araji told AFP.
But he did not say the Sadr movement would renounce an armed wing entirely, instead speaking of a smaller, more disciplined force, a plan first announced by Sadr in June.
"The resistance is for the professional fighters only that will be selected according to Sadr's rules," Araji said.
Sadr's decision to stop fighting in 2007 came around the same time that many Sunni rebel groups decided to join forces with the US military to fight Al-Qaeda and amid a "surge" in American troop numbers.
These factors have led to an overall drop in violence to a four-year low.
Maliki took on the Mahdi Army in March when he ordered an offensive against Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra, sparking fighting in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq in which hundreds were killed.
Sadr forces have also clashed with other Shiite factions, notably the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, a Shiite religious party led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, a key government ally of Maliki.
Currently believed to be in Iran, Sadr led two uprisings against US-led forces in 2004 and had repeatedly vowed to fight on until US troops leave Iraq.
The group takes it name from Al-Mahdi Al-Montazar (the Awaited Mahdi), the revered 12th Shiite imam who disappeared in 907, and who Shiites believe will return to bring justice to the world.
Date created : 2008-08-28