BAGHDAD — Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opted Friday to keep the cease-fire order for his Mahdi Army militia in place for another six months, a step that will hold down U.S. and Iraqi casualties while bolstering al-Sadr’s importance as a political player as Iraqi factions jostle for power.
Opening a sealed statement from the firebrand leader, scores of Shiite clerics around the country read al-Sadr’s message at Friday prayer services. In al-Sadr’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, thousands of men sat and listened attentively to the statement as green and black banners – symbols of his movement – waved in a brisk wind.
“According to an order by Sayyid Muqtada, activities of the Mahdi Army will be suspended ... for another six-month period,” al-Sadr aide Hazim al-Aaraji said at the Kazimiyah mosque in Baghdad, using an honorific for the cleric.
Al-Sadr offered “thanks and appreciation” to his followers and appreciation for “your understanding and your patience.” The freeze was extended until the 15th of Shaban, a reference to the Islamic month before Ramadan, which would mean mid-August.
Along with an increase in U.S. troop levels and a move by American-backed Sunni fighters to turn against their former al-Qaida in Iraq allies, the cease-fire has been credited with reducing war deaths among Iraqis by nearly 70 percent in six months, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
Extending it has multiple advantages for al-Sadr, who launched two major uprisings against coalition forces in 2004.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel called al-Sadr’s decision a positive development.