KUFA, Iraq (AFP) — Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia to prolong its ceasefire for six months on Friday, to the evident relief of the United States.
The decision to keep the force off the streets was welcomed by the US military, which once saw the Mahdi Army as the greatest threat to the future of Iraq but now hope Sadr can be a stabilising influence.
In Washington, the White House called it a "positive development."
Shiite imams in mosques across south and central Iraq opened sealed letters from their populist movement's leader and read his statement to supporters after Muslim weekly prayers six months after the truce was first declared.
"I prolong the freeze in the activities of the Mahdi Army until the 15th day of the month of Shabaan," Sadr said, using the Islamic calendar to indicate that the ceasefire will continue at least until August 16.
"I cannot support the crimes of criminals, nor the sins of sinners, and I created this army on the principles of the tradition of the Prophet," according to the letter read by the imam at Sadr's mosque in Kufa, Assaad al-Nasiri.
Sadr did not appear publicly at Friday prayers, and it is not clear where he is now based. Some reports have suggested that he has crossed the border into Iraq's neighbour Iran, but his group would not confirm this.
The decision to continue the ceasefire was not universally welcomed by Sadr's supporters, some of whom had been hoping for a return to their former campaign of violence against American and Iraqi security forces.
"I know I must obey this decision, but I don't support it because it harms us. We have been exposed to revenge attacks and political score-settling," said Mohammed Ouz, a 35-year-old Mahdi Army militiaman in Karbala.
But other fighters said a truce would allow time for Sadr to continue purging his movement of criminal elements, and for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to address Shiite demands.
"Seyyed Moqtada's decision is right and aims to unite our movement and stop the shedding of Muslim blood," said Nazar Jabbar, a 25-year-old Mahdi Army guard at the Kufa mosque.
Sadr ordered a six-month freeze in attacks on rival armed groups and US forces last August after allegations that his fighters had been involved in bloody clashes with security forces in the shrine city of Karbala.
The decision came at the same time many Sunni rebel groups in western Iraq decided to join forces with the US military to fight Al-Qaeda and amid a "surge" in American troop numbers.
These three developments combined have led to a steep decline in fighting between rival factions in southern and central Iraq, but Iraqi leaders have always known that the relative peace was fragile.
Sadr's supporters claim that rival Shiite groups within the government security forces have used the truce as cover to arrest and assassinate leading figures in their movement.
Sadr forces have in particular clashed with another powerful Shiite group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, in southern cities such as Diwaniyah and Amara.
The American military -- which now refers to its former foe using the honorific title "Seyyed" that he carries as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed -- praised Sadr's decision.
"Those who continue to honour al-Seyyed Moqtada al-Sadr's pledge will be treated with respect and restraint," said a statement issued by US command.
"Those who dishonour the Sadr pledge are regrettably tarnishing both the name and the honour of the movement.
"This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honour to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens," the statement said.
"We also welcome an opportunity to participate in dialogue with the Sadr Trend and all groups who seek to bring about reconciliation in building the new Iraq," it added.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Washington welcomed "any move that forswears violence and encourages peaceful participation.
"To the extent the announcement today serves to further isolate the groups that are engaging in violence and to the extent that it helps enhance our intelligence to root out those groups, it's a positive development," he said.
In Baghdad Maliki congratulated Sadr for his "elevated sense of responsibility." The ceasefire "will help reinforce security and national unity," he said in a statement issued after the White House reaction.
Maliki described Sadr as "an essential player" in the country's political process "and in the destiny of building a new Iraq."
The UN special envoy in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, said in a statement he hoped Sadr's decision would "help sustain the reduction of violence and reinforce progress towards national dialogue and reconciliation."
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