Iraq: Mahdi army obeys truce but remains divided

Sadr City, 31 August (AKI) - Armed followers of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq are so far obeying the six-month truce imposed by the Shiite leader on his Mahdi Army militia this week.

But some of the militia's fighters have threatened to take up arms if provoked by US forces.

"It is a big and tough decision ... We have never been in a situation like this before," Abu Hazim, a Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, told Arab TV network, al-Jazeera.

"It will be hard to stand still with our hands tied when we are attacked or arrested by Americans."

Ahmed al-Shaibani, a senior Sadr aide, warned US forces not to take advantage of the order, while another told al-Jazeera the suspension might be shortlived if US and Iraqi forces did not stop detaining the cleric's followers.

"We say to the Americans, don't be happy. The resistance does not end," Shaibani said.

Early this week police blamed Mahdi Army militiamen for the violent clashes that took place during a Shia festival in the holy city of Karbala. More than 50 people were killed and many others were injured in the bloodshed.

At a news conference in Karbala on Wednesday, one of Sadr's aides announced the suspension of the militia's activities for six months.

"We declare the freezing of the Mahdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months starting from the day this statement is issued," Sheikh Hazim al-Araji said.

Asked if the new order meant no attacks on US troops, another senior aide who declined to be identified said: "All kinds of armed actions are to be frozen, without exception."

The Pentagon has cautiously welcomed the move.

"The proof of Muqtada al-Sadr's sincerity is in the pudding," Brigadier General Richard Sherlock, deputy director for operational planning at the US department of defence, said.

There are believed to be 60,000 members of the militia.

In April 2007, the US defence department described the Mahdi army as the greatest threat to Iraq's security, replacing al-Qaeda in Iraq as the country's "most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence".


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