Baghdad -- Radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia yesterday to halt hostilities for six months in order to restore its credibility in the eyes of Iraqis shaken by a deadly outbreak of Shiite-on-Shiite violence.
The unexpected move by the anti-American cleric, coupled with a vow to cease attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, might also have been aimed at elevating his standing among his countrymen and their neighbors by demonstrating that he has the power to make peace or destroy it.
"I direct the Mahdi Army to suspend all its activity for six months, until it is restructured in a way that helps honor the principles for which it was formed," al-Sadr said in a statement from his stronghold in the holy city of Najaf.
The announcement came after a deadly clash between Shiite militias in the holy city of Karbala this week in which at least 52 people were killed and 300 wounded.
The fighting was blamed on Mahdi Army militiamen and their rivals in the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the country's biggest Shiite political force, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Al-Sadr denied that he had approved of the bloodshed and said he was halting militia operations to purge infiltrators and rogue elements that have been engaging in attacks that discredit the populist force.
The militia has splintered into factions and needs to be "rehabilitated," al-Sadr aide Hazim Araji told Iraqi state television. The freeze on operations was being ordered "without exception," he said.
Al-Sadr's announcement seemed to defuse tension in the capital as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, forced to leave Karbala because of the fighting and a security crackdown, flooded into Baghdad in overloaded trucks, buses and cattle trailers.
Flags and banners proclaiming allegiance to al-Sadr rippled from the horn-honking vehicles as they threaded through checkpoints alternately manned by Mahdi and Badr gunmen with automatic rifles at the ready.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, flew to Karbala to survey the scene of the gunbattle and to discuss security with local officials. He fired the provincial security minister and ordered an investigation to expose the perpetrators.
Al-Maliki's suggestion that remnants of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated Baath Party were to blame drew scorn in Baghdad as the most recent example of his inability to identify and eradicate the roots of violence in Iraq.
"Al-Maliki is only making matters worse with his interference and his visit" to Karbala and Najaf, said Nassar Rubaie, head of al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc.
Political analysts saw al-Sadr's pledge to lay down weapons as damage control after the Karbala clashes that instilled terror across the country.
"Al-Sadr is likely trying to deflect criticism for the clash in Karbala by blaming the event on rogue elements in the Mahdi Army," said Vali Nasr, a fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Nasr said the Mahdi militia has been growing and becoming better armed, probably with Iranian assistance, at the same time that the United States has been building up its forces and operations against Sunni militants in Iraq during the past six months. Mahdi Army and Badr gunmen have been moving south in preparation for the withdrawal of British troops from Basra. A battle for supremacy has been expected, he said, with Iraq's most valuable oil assets seen as up for grabs.
If the rival militias in the south continue to strengthen and become disconnected from the al-Maliki government, "things may well fall apart completely," Nasr said, predicting a level of violence as yet unseen in more than four years of conflict.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said he had made inquiries into the clashes in Karbala and was assured by "the brothers of the Sadr movement" that the violence was committed by rogue elements and enemies who have infiltrated the militia with the aim of discrediting it.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.