BAGHDAD 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."
Another senior official in Sadr's movement, speaking from the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf where Sadr has offices, said the cleric would likely extend the truce for another six months.
Sadr's spokesman, Salah al-Ubaidi, has previously said the cleric would issue a statement around February 23 if he was renewing the truce, while silence would mean it was over.
Distribution of Sadr's statement to religious leaders seems to indicate the anti-American cleric will renew the truce.
Besides involvement in bitter tit-for-tat sectarian attacks, the Mehdi Army has battled U.S. and Iraqi forces and clashed with rival Shi'ite factions. The militia launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.
Many Mehdi Army members and Sadrist political leaders want the truce scrapped, accusing Iraqi security forces of exploiting it to detain Sadrists, especially in Shi'ite southern Iraq, where rival Shi'ite factions are locked in a struggle for power.
U.S. military commanders say violence in Iraq has dropped 60 percent since June 2007. They have attributed that to Sadr's ceasefire, the deployment of 30,000 extra U.S. soldiers, and Sunni Arab tribal leaders turning against al Qaeda.
U.S. officials have said they want the government to take advantage of the lull in fighting to continue making progress on laws to reconcile majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni Muslims.
Sadr called the truce after deadly clashes between his militia, Iraqi security forces and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a rival Shi'ite faction, in the holy city of Kerbala.
Analysts say he sought to impose order on the unrulier elements of his militia, some of whom have degenerated into gangsterism and organized crime. It is a powerful force in Baghdad and the southern oil hub of Basra.
The U.S. military has praised Sadr for the truce but pursued what it calls "rogue" elements of the Mehdi Army. It has accused Iran of arming, training and funding these groups.
The International Crisis Group this month warned U.S. forces not to provoke al Sadr into revoking the ceasefire, which it said would be a major setback for Iraq's security gains.
The son of a Shi'ite cleric killed under Saddam Hussein, Sadr led two uprisings against the U.S. occupation in 2004. He quit the ruling Shi'ite coalition in 2007 after the government failed to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Dean Yates and Sami Aboudi)