February 22, 2008

Sadr Extends Cease-Fire For Six More Months

It's now official -- Moqtada al-Sadr has sidelined the Mahdi Army for another six months. Imams at Sadr-connected mosques just made the announcement for Friday prayers on the day before the previous six-month halt expired:

Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to prolong their Mahdi Army militia's ceasefire for another six months Friday, after seeing a dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq.

Shiite imams in mosques across south and central Iraq opened sealed letters from the Sadrist movement's leader and read his statement to supporters after Muslim weekly prayers on the half-year anniversary of the truce.

The decision to maintain the ceasefire was immediately welcomed by relieved US commanders, who once saw the Mahdi Army as the greatest threat to the future of Iraq but now hope Sadr can be a stabilising influence.

"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 until at least August 16.

The American military commanders in Iraq have hailed the decision, taking care to refer to Sadr as al-Sayyed. The honorific notes the direct descent of Sadr from Mohammed, and is used as a sign of respect. The US forces have learned some of the nuances of interacting with the Shi'ite followers and how to keep from unnecessarily alienating them, and they used it to warn the Mahdis not to "dishonor" al-Sayyed.

Sadr himself did not appear. Some reports have him in Iran, although his spokesmen refuse to reveal where Sadr is at the moment. Sadr reportedly has gone to Qom to deepen his religious studies and attain the rank of Ayatollah. With that rank, Sadr feels that he could challenge Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for political and cultural influence.

He needs to keep the Mahdis on ice while he studies; one cannot run a war and complete the long study necessary at the same time. When he returns with that rank, he could use it to transform and broaden the Mahdis into a political movement. Alternately, he could have more credibility as a military jihadist as an Ayatollah and create a lot more havoc, but that seems less likely. By the time he becomes Ayatollah, no one will have the stomach for more internecine fighting.

Sadr hasn't stopped his quest for power. He has just decided on some changes in strategy and tactics, and for the moment that bodes well for continuing progress in Iraq. Six more months of peace will allow for even more consolidation of the gains made over the last year. However, Sadr still bears close scrutiny.

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