February 21, 2008

Sadr To Extend Cease-Fire?

The six-month cease-fire ordered by Moqtada al-Sadr for his Mahdi Army soons expires, and many wondered what Sadr might do. Reuters reports that Sadr has decided to keep his militants sidelined for at least another few months. Sealed envelopes have gone to key Shi'ite mosques, with instructions to open them only in time for Friday prayers (via Hot Air):

Powerful Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is expected to extend a six-month ceasefire by his Mehdi Army militia, two senior officials in his movement confirmed for the first time on Thursday.

They said Sadr had issued a declaration to preachers to be read during midday prayers on Friday at mosques affiliated with the cleric, whose militia was blamed for fuelling sectarian violence with minority Sunni Muslims in 2006 and 2007.

U.S. officials say the ceasefire has helped to sharply reduce violence in Iraq, and an extension of the truce would be widely welcomed.

"The general idea is that there will be an extension," said one senior official in Sadr's movement in Baghdad who declined to be identified or go into detail on the declaration.

"Sayed (Sadr) has distributed sealed envelopes to the imams of the mosques to be read tomorrow. They cannot be opened before tomorrow."

Just the fact that the letters went out indicates that the cease-fire will get extended. Previously, the MA spokesmen have indicated that Sadr would extend it by February 23rd or not at all, and that silence would mean an end to the cease-fire. Sending an announcement gives a strong presumption of its continuance, and Reuters' sources say that Sadr will give it another six months.

Sadr has explained that he needed the cease-fire to identify and eliminate rogues in his organization. Either he feels that he hasn't finished that job, or he has grown accustomed to using the threat of ending the cease-fire as a political tool. If the Mahdi Army returned to fighting, they would find themselves much more outmatched than before, and tremendously less popular for restarting internecine hostilities in Iraq. It would also end the extortive value of the Mahdi Army, and Sadr would find himself even more marginalized than ever.

Sadr remains a dangerous foe. No doubt he sees a great deal of self-interest in maintaining the peace, or otherwise he wouldn't have agreed to it in the first place. It helps keep Iraq calm, and the US has to be happy with that, but we'd be a lot happier if the Mahdi Army -- and Sadr himself -- disappeared altogether.

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