/ 7 April 2008

Iraq’s al-Sadr to disband militia if clerics give order

Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will consult senior religious leaders and disband his Mehdi Army militia if they instruct him to, a senior aide said on Monday.

The surprise announcement was the first time Sadr has proposed dissolving the Mehdi Army, one of the principle actors in Iraq’s five-year-old conflict and the main opponent of United States and Iraqi forces during a recent upsurge in fighting.

It came on the day Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in a television interview, ordered the Mehdi Army to disband or Sadr’s followers would be excluded from Iraqi political life.

Senior aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, as well as senior Shi’ite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the Mehdi Army, and would obey their orders.

That effectively puts the militia’s fate in the hands of the ageing and reclusive Sistani, a cleric revered by all of Iraq’s Shi’ite factions and whose edicts carry the force of Islamic law, but who almost never intervenes in politics.

”Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his offices in Najaf and Qom to form a delegation to visit Sistani in Najaf and [other leaders] in Qom to discuss the disbanding of the Mehdi Army,” Zargani said.

”If they order the Mehdi Army to disband, Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders.”

Najaf in Iraq, where Sistani is based, and Qom in Iran are the main seats of Shi’ite Islamic scholarship.

Maliki ordered a crackdown on the militia two weeks ago in the southern city of Basra, provoking clashes throughout Baghdad and the Shi’ite south that led to the country’s worst fighting since at least the first half of 2007.

That fighting ebbed a week ago when Sadr ordered the militia off the streets, but has picked up in the last day with clashes around the Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a Baghdad slum.

In the interview broadcast on Monday, the prime minister for the first time named the Mehdi Army and ordered it to disband.

”Solving the problem comes in no other way than dissolving the Mehdi Army,” Maliki told US network CNN. ”They no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mehdi Army.”

He said government troops would continue the Sadr City crackdown.

”We have opened the door for confrontation, a real confrontation with these gangs, and we will not stop until we are in full control of these areas.” — Iraq