By Kristin Roberts
WASHINGTON, Aug 29 (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi‘ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to suspend Mehdi Army activities is a tactic to weed out rogue elements as the young cleric struggles to maintain control over his militia, U.S. security analysts said on Wednesday.
While a cease-fire, if maintained, could allow factions in Baghdad to strike a political accord, many analysts warned against optimism.
"If it sticks, it’s certainly timely and very helpful for the administration but I doubt that that’s what’s going on in Sadr’s mind," said Bruce Riedel at the Brookings Institution.
"I think this is much more about trying to hold his militia together, which seems to be splintering even worse than before and which seems to be engaging in more and more violence against other Shia militias."
The Pentagon and State Department also played down the significance of Sadr’s move.
"Statements have been made by Moqtada al-Sadr in the past and sometimes we’ve seen an impact as a result of them, sometimes we haven‘t," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey. "So I think we’ll just have to wait and see what occurs on the ground."
Sadr suspended all armed actions by the Mehdi Army on Wednesday after 52 people were killed in gun battles in the southern city of Kerbala that forced hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to flee the city.
The fighting appeared to pit Iraq’s two largest Shi‘ite groups against one another -- Sadr’s militia and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
U.S. military officials have said they do not believe Sadr has full authority over the Mehdi Army, leading some defense analysts to speculate that Sadr was using the cease-fire to identify disloyal factions within the militia.
Stephen Biddle, analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Sadr had previously ordered his fighters to cease attacks. Then as perhaps now, that could be a tactic to leave those disloyal factions to fight U.S. forces alone.
"Maybe what this is is an attempt to get the U.S. to do his dirty work for him and cleanse the JAM of rogue elements he can’t control," Biddle said, using the acronym for Jaish al-Mahdi, or Mehdi Army.
"It is certainly a logic by which a militia leader, facing an increasingly splintered militia, can try to regain control," he said.