U.S. sees cleric's call as positive

Muqtada al-Sadr's order may help in fight against al-Qaida.

By Times Wires
Published September 2, 2007

BAGHDAD - The U.S. command expressed hope Saturday that an order by powerful Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down his Mahdi Army fighters for up to six months would curb attacks on civilians and allow American troops to step up the fight against al-Qaida.

"If implemented, al-Sadr's order holds the prospect of allowing coalition and Iraqi security forces to intensify their focus on al-Qaida in Iraq and on protecting the Iraqi population," the U.S. command said in a statement.

Sunni Arab leaders have accused the Mahdi Army of massacring thousands of Sunnis during the last three years and driving thousands from their homes.

Many Shiites see the militia as their best protection against Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida, that have carried out similar attacks on Shiites.

However, the Mahdi Army's credibility has been shaken by allegations of extortion, murder, robbery and other crimes committed by members who appear to be beyond the control of the youthful Sadr, who said he would use the six-month hiatus to restructure the force "in a way that helps honor the principles for which it was formed."

The United States maintains that some of the breakaway factions, which the Americans refer to as the "special groups," are receiving weapons, training and money from Iran.

American troops have been stepping up operations against Shiite "special groups" in the Baghdad area, even though the command insists that al-Qaida, a Sunni group, remains the top priority in Iraq.

Early Saturday, residents of Sadr City, Sadr's northeast Baghdad stronghold, said the U.S. military detained eight men during a raid.

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.