December 20, 2007 / 1:04 PM / 12 years ago

Powerful Iraq cleric may extend freeze on militia

(Adds U.S. comment paragraphs 6-7)

NAJAF, Iraq, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is considering extending a freeze on the activities of his powerful Mehdi Army militia, his spokesman said.

"Yes, there is a chance that the freeze on the Mehdi Army will be extended," Salah al-Ubaidy told Reuters late on Wednesday.

Ubaidy did not say how long another extension might last or why the group was thinking of extending a freeze that U.S. commanders say has helped ease overall levels of violence in Iraq.

Sadr, who led uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004 and whose militia were later described by U.S. commanders as their greatest threat, surprised both Iraqis and U.S. forces when he ordered the initial six-month freeze on his militia in August.

Washington says the freeze is one of the factors that has led to a decline in violence across Iraq, although it has continued to pursue what it describes as "rogue" Mehdi Army units that have not laid down arms.

U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith said: "We welcome the potential for the extension of the freeze."

"We believe that al-Sayyed Moqtada al Sadr’s pledge to work in a political process and the peaceful transition is much more constructive than through violence," he said, using an honorific title for a man Washington tried to arrest in 2004.

The son of a revered Shi’ite cleric slain under Saddam Hussein, Sadr has wide influence in the Shi’ite south and parts of Baghdad although he does not himself hold high clerical rank.

He has recently begun taking advanced Islamic studies in the religious learning centre of Najaf in a bid to climb the ranks of the Shi’ite religious hierarchy and increase his influence whilst also earning more respect from religious elders.

Although his political activity has been difficult to predict, those close to him suggest he is happy with the results of his ceasefire and may even seek to make it permanent, while emphasising his organisation’s social role over its armed wing.

"There is a plan to freeze the Mehdi Army’s activities again. (Sadr) has completed the re-organisation of the force and has focused on using the members in helping society," a senior Sadr official said under condition he not be named.

A Mehdi Army commander in southern Iraq, who also asked not to reveal his name, said members of the armed group would obey any order given by Sadr.

"We listen to his orders, even if he were to decide to abolish the Mehdi Army. He understands our interests more than ourselves," he said. (Reporting by Khalid Farhan in Najaf and Peter Graff in Baghdad; Writing by Mussab Al-Khairalla; Editing by Peter Graff and Richard Balmforth)



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