Following Moqtada al-Sadr's announcement on Friday that the Mahdi Army was extending its ceasefire for six more months in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Mike Milan, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, told reporters that U.S. forces would maintain a ceasefire of their own vis-à-vis the Mahdi Army:  "We will continue to treat those who honor the ceasefire with respect and restraint."[1]  --  As von Clausewitz said:  "War can be of two kinds, in the sense that either the objective is to overthrow the enemy — to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent, thus forcing him to sign whatever peace we please; or merely to occupy some of his frontier-districts so that we can annex them or use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations. . . . This distinction between the two kinds of war is an actual fact. But no less practical is the importance of another point that must be made absolutely clear, namely that war is nothing but the continuation of policy [i.e. politics] with other means" (quoted in Peter Paret, "Clausewitz," in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age [Princeton University Press, 1986], pp. 196-97).  --  In this case, the U.S. is currently occupying Iraqi districts and using them for bargaining.  --  Moqtada al-Sadr's statement as well as the statement from both the U.S. military command made it clear that the U.S. military and the Mahdi Army are hostile forces that are observing a ceasefire for sets of policy reasons that have little to do with common aims.[2]  --  The Los Angeles Times noted that Moqtada al-Sadr continues to refuse to meet directly with U.S. representatives.[3]  --  Time's Mark Kukis observed that "the cease-fire Sadr announced unexpectedly six months ago was not directed at the Americans as much as it was aimed at halting fighting between Sadr's followers and members of the rival Shi'ite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and its Badr militia.  Intra-Shi'ite fighting threatened al-Sadr's popularity, and it was in his interests to tamp things down.  But the Sadrists and SIIC are still vying for control in much of southern Iraq, and their conflict is likely to flare up again.  Al-Sadr may be calculating that it will be easier to fight his rivals in the summer, when there will be fewer American forces to stand in the way."[4] ...


Iraq wrap-up

By Michael Holden

February 23, 2008

BAGHDAD -- A senior U.S. commander promised on Saturday that U.S. and Iraqi forces would not attack Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army if it stuck to a ceasefire, after militia members expressed fears it was being exploited to target them.

The Shi'ite cleric's decision to renew his ceasefire for a further six months on Friday was hailed by the Iraqi and U.S. governments, which said it would help prevent a return to sectarian violence that pushed Iraq towards all-out civil war.

However, a number of Mahdi Army members fear the ceasefire will expose them to attacks from U.S. and Iraqi security forces, which they have accused of exploiting an initial truce called last August to arrest scores of Sadrists.

"We want to emphasize that Iraqi security forces and Coalition forces are only targeting those that commit criminal and terrorist acts," Brigadier-General Mike Milano, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, told reporters.

"We will continue to treat those who honor the ceasefire with respect and restraint."

Analysts have cautioned U.S. forces not to provoke the Mahdi Army, which has tens of thousands of fighters and was once described by the Pentagon as the greatest threat to Iraq's security. The militia staged two uprisings in 2004.


The U.S. military has been aggressively pursuing what it describes as "special groups," members of Sadr's militia who it says do not recognize the ceasefire and are trained and equipped by Iran. Tehran denies the accusations.

Milano said 31 people had been killed this week in some of the deadliest mortar and rocket strikes for months, attacks which the U.S. military usually blames on such "special groups".

In the latest incident on Saturday, a barrage of mortar bombs or rockets hit Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone, home to the U.S. embassy and Iraqi government ministries, although there were no reports of casualties or damage.

U.S. commanders say Sadr's ceasefire has been a major factor in improved security. At the height of the sectarian violence, hundreds of bodies were found dumped on Baghdad's streets. The execution-style killings were widely blamed on the Mahdi Army.

Milano said since June last year attacks in Baghdad were down 75 percent and civilian deaths had fallen 93 percent.

But U.S. commanders still caution that al Qaeda in Iraq, which they now say is the greatest security risk, remains capable of carrying out deadly attacks.

Iraqi police said they killed nine al Qaeda militants in a gunfight on Saturday in the city of Samarra, where the bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine two years ago triggered the wave of sectarian violence.

"Nine terrorists were killed from al Qaeda including four foreign fighters, one Algerian, a Syrian, and two Saudis," said a senior provincial police officer, who declined to be named.

A local hospital said it had received nine bodies with gunshot wounds.

In Baghdad, the head of Iraq's national journalists' union was seriously wounded when gunmen opened fire on his car. Journalists have frequently been targeted in Iraq, which is considered by media rights groups to be the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to work.

(Writing by Michael Holden; additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Tim Cocks and Aws Qusay in Baghdad; editing by Mary Gabriel)



Agence France-Presse
February 22, 2008

KUFA, Iraq -- Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia to prolong its ceasefire for six months on Friday, to the evident relief of the United States.

The decision to keep the force off the streets was welcomed by the U.S. military, which once saw the Mahdi Army as the greatest threat to the future of Iraq but now hope Sadr can be a stabilizing influence.

In Washington, the White House called it a "positive development."

Shiite imams in mosques across south and central Iraq opened sealed letters from their populist movement's leader and read his statement to supporters after Muslim weekly prayers six months after the truce was first declared.

"I prolong the freeze in the activities of the Mahdi Army until the 15th day of the month of Shabaan," Sadr said, using the Islamic calendar to indicate that the ceasefire will continue at least until August 16.

"I cannot support the crimes of criminals, nor the sins of sinners, and I created this army on the principles of the tradition of the Prophet," according to the letter read by the imam at Sadr's mosque in Kufa, Assaad al-Nasiri.

Sadr did not appear publicly at Friday prayers, and it is not clear where he is now based. Some reports have suggested that he has crossed the border into Iraq's neighbour Iran, but his group would not confirm this.

The decision to continue the ceasefire was not universally welcomed by Sadr's supporters, some of whom had been hoping for a return to their former campaign of violence against American and Iraqi security forces.

"I know I must obey this decision, but I don't support it because it harms us. We have been exposed to revenge attacks and political score-settling," said Mohammed Ouz, a 35-year-old Mahdi Army militiaman in Karbala.

But other fighters said a truce would allow time for Sadr to continue purging his movement of criminal elements, and for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to address Shiite demands.

"Seyyed Moqtada's decision is right and aims to unite our movement and stop the shedding of Muslim blood," said Nazar Jabbar, a 25-year-old Mahdi Army guard at the Kufa mosque.

Sadr ordered a six-month freeze in attacks on rival armed groups and U.S. forces last August after allegations that his fighters had been involved in bloody clashes with security forces in the shrine city of Karbala.

The decision came at the same time many Sunni rebel groups in western Iraq decided to join forces with the U.S. military to fight Al-Qaeda and amid a "surge" in American troop numbers.

These three developments combined have led to a steep decline in fighting between rival factions in southern and central Iraq, but Iraqi leaders have always known that the relative peace was fragile.

Sadr's supporters claim that rival Shiite groups within the government security forces have used the truce as cover to arrest and assassinate leading figures in their movement.

Sadr forces have in particular clashed with another powerful Shiite group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, in southern cities such as Diwaniyah and Amara.

The American military -- which now refers to its former foe using the honorific title "Seyyed" that he carries as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed -- praised Sadr's decision.

"Those who continue to honor al-Seyyed Moqtada al-Sadr's pledge will be treated with respect and restraint," said a statement issued by U.S. command.

"Those who dishonor the Sadr pledge are regrettably tarnishing both the name and the honor of the movement.

"This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honor to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens," the statement said.

"We also welcome an opportunity to participate in dialogue with the Sadr Trend and all groups who seek to bring about reconciliation in building the new Iraq," it added.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Washington welcomed "any move that forswears violence and encourages peaceful participation.

"To the extent the announcement today serves to further isolate the groups that are engaging in violence and to the extent that it helps enhance our intelligence to root out those groups, it's a positive development," he said.

In Baghdad Maliki congratulated Sadr for his "elevated sense of responsibility." The ceasefire "will help reinforce security and national unity," he said in a statement issued after the White House reaction.

Maliki described Sadr as "an essential player" in the country's political process "and in the destiny of building a new Iraq."

The U.N. special envoy in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, said in a statement he hoped Sadr's decision would "help sustain the reduction of violence and reinforce progress towards national dialogue and reconciliation."


World news

By Alexandra Zavis

** In well-planned move, Sadr asserts his rising authority and status. **

Los Angeles Times
February 23, 2008,1,3459904.story

BAGHDAD -- Everything about Moqtada Sadr's announcement Friday that he was renewing a six-month cease-fire by his Mahdi Army militia appeared choreographed to reinforce his ascent from rabble-rouser to respected Shiite Muslim cleric and political power-broker.

Until the last minute, Sadr kept Iraq on tenterhooks about whether he would extend the truce, which has been credited with helping to reduce sectarian violence and attacks against U.S. forces.

The order to extend the cease-fire for another six months was delivered to loyalist clerics in sealed envelopes and revealed to followers during midday prayers in a flourish highlighting the importance of his cooperation as the U.S. starts to draw down extra troops deployed last year.

In a statement welcoming the announcement, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's office said Sadr's movement was "an essential pillar in the political process and the march toward a new Iraq."

The U.S. military signaled that it was ready for dialogue with Sadr's followers. U.S. officials, who a year ago described Sadr's movement as the single greatest threat to Iraq, have begun referring to him as "the honorable" Moqtada Sadr. They say his cease-fire has contributed to a 60% decline in violence since June.

Sadr vehemently opposes the presence of U.S. forces and spearheaded two violent uprisings in 2004.

He announced the six-month cease-fire in August after embarrassing clashes between his Mahdi Army fighters and a rival Shiite militia during a religious festival left at least 52 people dead in the holy city of Karbala.

Sadr had said the truce would allow him to instill discipline in the ranks, ridding the militia of thugs who were giving it a bad name. Analysts suggested that he may also have wanted to avoid going head-to-head with U.S. forces, whose numbers were boosted by 28,500 last year under President Bush's troop buildup.

Sadr's black-clad fighters were a driving force in the retaliatory killings between Shiites and Sunnis unleashed by the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra two years ago. The sectarian bloodshed accounted for nearly 800 deaths in Baghdad last February, compared to fewer than 40 last month, Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith said this week.

In a statement Friday, the U.S. military said the extension would allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to concentrate on the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, which it now considers the No. 1 threat.

It promised to treat those who honor Sadr's pledge with "respect and restraint," but said it would pursue any elements that wage attacks.

"We also welcome an opportunity to participate in dialogue with the Sadr trend and all groups who seek to bring about reconciliation in building the new Iraq," the statement said.

Sadr is unlikely to agree to a direct meeting, but his followers have had contacts with the U.S. military at a local level.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement Friday, Sadr's aides and loyalists in parliament had complained that their foes were using the cease-fire to try to crush his movement politically and militarily.

They accused U.S. and Iraqi security forces of targeting supporters in their strongholds, such as Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, and in Iraq's largely Shiite south, where they are vying for power with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. That party, led by Shiite rival Abdelaziz Hakim, is a key U.S. ally. Members of its Badr Organization militia dominate the upper echelons of the Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq.

Sadr had sent mixed signals about his intentions, first warning that he might order his militia back into action, then instructing his followers to respect the cease-fire. His comments were followed by an increase in rocket attacks blamed on breakaway factions of his militia who are unhappy with the truce.

Sadr's spokesman, Salah Ubaidi, said the decision to renew the cease-fire was based on religious concerns. But Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics and an Iraq expert at Tufts University, said Sadr was well aware of the tactical and political implications.

"I think this whole maneuver was designed to make sure everybody understood the value he had," Nasr said.

He said U.S. officials and Sadr's Shiite rivals had long underestimated the cleric, who draws his strength from the Shiite street.

"He has proven to be a master tactician, who is able to keep one foot in the political process and maintain the image of an outsider," Nasr said.

By rarely appearing in public, Sadr maintains the image of the underground rebel. Yet he has 30 representatives in parliament and provided crucial backing enabling Maliki's ascent to prime minister.

Sadr, the son of a beloved religious figure slain under Saddam Hussein's regime, has built Iraq's largest social movement, providing assistance to hundreds of thousands of destitute Shiites. He is furthering his religious studies so he can become an ayatollah with the authority to issue religious edicts known as fatwas. And he commands what is arguably the country's largest militia.

But retaining control of his forces probably will remain one of his greatest challenges. In the southern oil hub of Basra, a senior member of Sadr's movement said Friday that many followers had wanted the cease-fire to end.

"I think that our enemies didn't respect this freeze of activities before, and therefore won't respect it now and will consider it a weakness on our part," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media. However, he said followers in Basra would support Sadr's decision.

In his message, read by Sheik Assad Nasiri at a mosque in Kufa, Sadr thanked his followers for their "understanding and patience."

More than 5,000 worshipers attended, many of them pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Karbala for a holiday. They waited anxiously for Nasiri to deliver his sermon, and smiled with relief after he said the cease-fire was extended.

"God bless Muqtada for freezing the Mahdi Army," said Gazwan Jabar, a 25-year-old worshiper. "By that action, the security situation was appeased."

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

--Times staff writer Tina Susman in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Kufa and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.


By Mark Kukis

February 22, 2008,8599,1715535,00.html

When the envelope was finally opened, Moqtada al-Sadr's message couldn't have been tamer. Having sent out sealed envelopes to Shi'ite mosques around Iraq containing his verdict on the future of the cease-fire observed by his Medhi Army, Iraq waited on tenterhooks for the message to be read at Friday prayers. "I'm extending the freeze of army activity," al-Sadr's statement read, ordering his militia to remain standing down until mid-August, when presumably the cleric will reconsider. Despite pressure from within his movement's ranks to end the cease-fire that, they complain, has been used by U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Shi'ite rivals to go after the organization, Friday's message hardly mentioned his many enemies in Iraq.

Many in Iraq had feared that Sadr would nix the cease-fire, a move likely to set off another round of sectarian violence and reverse many of the gains of the U.S. troop surge. But U.S. officials had expected that Sadr would maintain the pause, which has been a major factor in bringing down the overall level of violence in Iraq. Sadr had sent some signals to the Americans suggesting he was likely to extend the cease-fire. And U.S. officials, such as Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, believe that the Shi'ite firebrand may be changing his ways.

"We have seen a shift in Sadr's strategy, I believe," said Gen. Raymond Odierno, the ground commander for U.S. forces in Iraq. "He has talked more and more about moving toward a more humanitarian movement, a political movement more like his father had, and away from a more lethal, militia-type movement."

The Sadr movement has, of course, long been involved in social and political activism in addition to militia violence. Its activists can be found doing everything from from holding seats in parliament to offering cut-rate propane in poor Shi'ite neighborhoods. That the Sadrists might choose to emphasize some of these activities over armed confrontation is quite plausible, but Moqtada al-Sadr is notoriously unpredictable, and the thinking behind his moves is often unclear. Sadr could just as easily be simply biding his time until surge troops leave in July.

Yet Sadr learned in 2004, at great cost to his organization, that open confrontation with U.S. forces is a bad idea. The Mahdi Army fared poorly against U.S. troops in two separate uprisings in southern Iraq that year. In the years that followed, Sadr's militia fighters kept up a kind of shadow war against U.S. troops, staging sporadic guerrilla attacks. But the Mahdi Army has largely avoided confronting U.S. forces for years, and the cease-fire Sadr announced unexpectedly six months ago was not directed at the Americans as much as it was aimed at halting fighting between Sadr's followers and members of the rival Shi'ite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and its Badr militia. Intra-Shi'ite fighting threatened al-Sadr's popularity, and it was in his interests to tamp things down. But the Sadrists and SIIC are still vying for control in much of southern Iraq, and their conflict is likely to flare up again. Al-Sadr may be calculating that it will be easier to fight his rivals in the summer, when there will be fewer American forces to stand in the way.

Extending the cease-fire also allows Sadr to distance himself from the thuggish violence of members of his militia, while keeping the organization intact despite U.S. and Iraqi government demands that he disband it.

So, while Friday's announcement was greeted with relief, most in Baghdad are still left wondering about Sadr's intentions and plans. "I'm always real modest about analyzing our capacity to analyze," said U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. "We don't see very much of the Sadrists. And the those we do see I think definitely represent the clear political trend; they don't much like militias either. But what insight do we actually have into a very, very complex phenomenon? Not much."