| NAJAF, Iraq
NAJAF, Iraq Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is ready to disband his militia if Shi'ite religious leaders demand it, his aides said on Monday, a surprising offer given renewed clashes between his fighters and security forces.
The news came after Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who launched a crackdown on Sadr's Mehdi Army late last month, ordered the cleric to disband his militia or face exclusion from the Iraqi political process.
Black-masked Mehdi Army fighters have been principal actors in Iraq's five-year-old war and the main foes of U.S. and Iraqi forces in widespread battles over recent weeks.
The U.S. military said gunmen killed three of its soldiers in Baghdad on Monday, a day after seven were killed across Iraq.
Senior Sadr aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, and senior Shi'ite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the Mehdi Army, and would obey their orders.
"If they order the Mehdi Army to disband, Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders," Zargani told Reuters from neighboring Iran, where U.S. officials say Sadr has spent most of the past year.
However, Sadr's spokesman in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, Salah al-Ubaidi, said the idea of disbanding the militia was not new and there was no plan to seek a ruling from top clerics.
"Sadr is willing to dissolve the Mehdi Army if the higher religious authorities order him to do so. (But) this is an old idea and didn't come in response to Maliki's orders," he said.
Sadr had consulted religious leaders a year ago and they had rejected the idea of dissolving the militia, Ubaidi added.
Sistani, 77, who almost never leaves his house in Najaf, has intervened in Iraqi politics only a handful of times but on each occasion his rulings have been decisive.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said he could not comment on the matter. Sistani's spokesman, Hamed al-Khafaf, declined to comment.
The announcement of the offer comes at a pivotal time, two days before Sadr has called a million followers onto the streets for anti-American demonstrations and one day before the top U.S. officials in Iraq are due to brief Congress on progress.
Sadr has a history of allowing his militia to show its strength, then pulling back unexpectedly from confrontation. Any move to disband the Mehdi Army could help Sadr win prestige among a public exhausted by fighting.
"Sadr's decision will gain him respect among followers as a leader who is ready to sacrifice for his supporters' safety," said Iraqi political science lecturer Hazem al-Nuaimi.
Joost Hiltermann, Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group think tank, said it was hard to imagine the gunmen disappearing from Iraqi neighborhoods any time soon.
"In a vacuum like the current one, militias thrive because they are necessary. They protect Sadr's people against sectarian attacks by Sunni insurgents and against the Shi'ite middle class which doesn't want Sadrists to get a share of power," he said.
Maliki ordered a crackdown on the militia two weeks ago in the southern city of Basra, provoking clashes throughout Baghdad and the Shi'ite south that led to the country's worst fighting since at least the first half of 2007.
That fighting ebbed a week ago when Sadr ordered the militia off the streets, but picked up again on Sunday with clashes around the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a Baghdad slum.
In an interview broadcast on Monday, Maliki singled out the Mehdi Army by name for the first time and ordered it disbanded.
"Solving the problem comes in no other way than dissolving the Mehdi Army," Maliki told U.S. network CNN, vowing to continue a crackdown on the militia. "They no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mehdi Army."
Fighting continued in Baghdad on Monday, although not with the same intensity as Sunday's clashes.
U.S. military spokesman Major Mark Cheadle said U.S. helicopters on Monday fired Hellfire missiles into Sadr City and the New Baghdad district, where a fixed-wing fighter also dropped a bomb on a mortar firing position.
Iraqi police said nine people died in a missile strike in the Amin district of eastern Baghdad.
(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin, Dean Yates, Ahmed Rasheed, Wisam Mohammed and Peter Graff; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Catherine Evans)