Sadr followers caught off guard by truce

BAGHDAD Sun Mar 30, 2008 3:17pm EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A sudden call by Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to stop battling government forces caught his followers off guard on Sunday after six days of fighting that had spread through southern Iraq and Baghdad.

Although Mehdi Army members said they would obey the call, they doubted the government would keep its side of the bargain.

Sadr's aides portrayed the order to stop fighting as part of a deal negotiated with the authorities to end arrests that have outraged his followers. The government said it would not halt its campaign against "criminals" in the southern city of Basra, which triggered fighting in other Shi'ite areas.

It was difficult to tell what effect Sadr's order has had on the fighting. A Reuters correspondent in Basra said it appeared to be followed by a lull.

"We respect the orders of Moqtada al-Sadr, but at the same time the government should also respect his statement," Abu Munadhil al-Tamimi, a Mahdi Army group leader in Basra's Tamimiya neighborhood, said by telephone.

"We will not lay down arms until government forces stop chasing and arresting Mehdi Army fighters," he said. "We have been fighting for six days and some of our fighters lost their lives along with innocent civilians. We are not ready to stay home waiting to be arrested by the army."

AWAITING ORDERS

In Baghdad's Sadr City, the huge slum named for the cleric's slain father that is the main power base of his followers in the capital, fighters were awaiting orders.

"We are now making phone calls to headquarters," a low-level Mehdi Army commander who gave his name as Abu Haidar told Reuters. "We don't know what to do. If we carry guns the government will oppose us, but if we put them down, the Americans will come, surround our homes and capture us."

Another Sadr City street commander, Abu Aqeel, said: "We don't have a choice. We should respect the order of Moqtada al-Sadr. But we will respect it with unease.

"There are worries, because this order will allow the American forces to capture and kill us one after another."

Sadr's followers revere him, but it has never been clear how tight a grip he has on them once they take to the streets. A ceasefire he declared last year did not halt attacks altogether, but it reduced violence substantially, U.S. commanders say.

Sunday's truce may be more difficult to make stick. It comes after six days of combat, with hundreds killed and wounded.

In many towns in the south, Sadr followers are locked in power struggles with rival Shi'ite groups. Those local conflicts have their own logic separate from politics on a national level.

Suspicion of the Maliki government among fighters runs deep.

"This is like a trap from the government. They used Moqtada al-Sadr to publish this truce order so they could enter difficult areas which Iraqi forces could not otherwise control in Basra," said Abu Haidar. "They are bluffing and cheating us."

Sadr's aides said his followers, while halting combat against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, would still need their arms to fight the "occupiers" -- U.S. forces.

"This order from Moqtada al-Sadr means we will not fight the Iraqi forces. But it does not mean we will not fight the American forces," said another Sadr City street commander, Abu Qasim. "We will carry guns against the occupation, against America, because they will attack us anyway."

(Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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