March 24, 2008 / 5:14 PM / 11 years ago

Iraq cleric's militia starts protest, shuts stores

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia ordered shops to close in some Baghdad neighborhoods on Monday in what they said was the start of a “civil disobedience campaign”.

Members of the Mehdi army carry weapons and poster with pictures of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Lebanon's Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as they protest against Israeli offensive in Lebanon during a march in Baghdad's Sadr City before Friday prayers July 21, 2006. REUTERS/Kareem Raheem

The show of force by the feared militia, which the U.S. military once called the greatest threat to peace in Iraq, alarmed residents, but leaders of Sadr’s political bloc in parliament stressed that it was a peaceful protest.

The militia has kept a low profile since Sadr called a ceasefire last August and extended it last month, a move U.S. commanders say has helped to sharply reduce sectarian violence between Iraq’s majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Muslims.

But gunbattles in Baghdad and the southern city of Kut last week have raised fears that it may be unraveling at a time when the U.S. military is withdrawing 20,000 troops.

Mehdi Army fighters have complained that U.S. and Iraqi forces have exploited the truce to carry out indiscriminate arrests. U.S. commanders say they only target Mehdi Army cells that have ignored Sadr’s ceasefire order.

“This disobedience is to express our objections against what is happening to us. It is a peaceful protest. Our demands are to stop these aggressions and to release all the Sadrist prisoners,” said Nassar al-Rubaie, the head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament.

“This does not mean the ceasefire is over. Such a decision is for Moqtada al-Sadr to take,” he stressed.

Rubaie did not say how long the protest would last or what form it would take, but loudspeakers at Sadr’s office in Amil district in south Baghdad said it would continue for three days.

FLAMING TYRES

Witnesses and Interior Ministry officials said Mehdi Army fighters spread through five districts in southern and western Bagdad, ordering shop owners to close. Pharmacies and food stores in some areas were allowed to remain open

In southern al-Ilaam neighborhood, they closed the roads with flaming tires.

There were no reports of any clashes with Iraqi or U.S. forces, but residents said the situation was very tense. Notably, shops remained open in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum of about 2 million people that is Sadr’s biggest stronghold.

In at least one of the affected districts, southern Bayaa, witnesses said the Mehdi Army fighters were walking about unarmed, although guns could be seen in their vehicles.

“U.S. forces mistakenly thought that the extension of the truce was a sign of weakness of the Mehdi Army. That is not true, they are still strong, but we are obeying the orders of Moqtada al-Sadr,” said Sheikh Mahmoud al-Sabihawi, an official in Sadr’s office in Baghdad’s Amil district.

A spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad, Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Stover, said aerial surveillance and U.S. troops could not confirm the movement of Mehdi Army fighters on the streets.

Interior Ministry officials said Mehdi Army fighters had appeared on the streets of al-Ilaam, Shurta, Bayaa and Amil districts in southern Baghdad and in Washash in the western section of the capital in an apparently co-ordinated action.

“They forced shop owners to close, saying they were calling for civil disobedience. The situation is very tense. There are rumors that the situation is going to deteriorate,” said Abu Adel, 55, a civil servant, and a resident of al-Ilaam district.

Adel Alwan, a resident of Amil district, said shops had also been closed in his area and Mehdi Army gunmen could be seen standing on street corners.

“I left the street and went back to my house and locked the door. I am anticipating the Americans will come and clash with them,” he told Reuters.

Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia

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