The Mehdi Army, Iraq's most powerful militia, is to extend its ceasefire by six months in a move likely to ensure that the current reduction in the level of violence will continue.
The Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army, yesterday ordered his militiamen to continue the truce, despite pressure from some of his senior lieutenants to resume military activity.
"We have extended the freezing of the activities of the Mehdi Army," said Asaad al-Naseri, a Shia preacher in the town of Kufa, reading a statement issued by Mr Sadr. He added that the ceasefire would now continue until mid-August.
The Mehdi Army ceasefire, which was declared on 29 August last year, is regarded by American commanders as an essential reason why sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shia has been reduced. Its militiamen took a leading role in the battle for Baghdad in 2006 in which the Shia were largely successful, reducing the Sunni to holding a few embattled enclaves.
Mr Sadr has benefited politically from the ceasefire because the Mehdi Army was being discredited even among the Shia as an umbrella organisation for criminal gangs and death squads. By enforcing the ceasefire he has shown he has the strength to control his men and he is also purging his army of those who do not obey his orders. Although it had vastly expanded in recent years, many of its units had slipped out of his control and were run by local warlords who owed him only nominal allegiance.
The US military in Baghdad welcomed the continuation of the ceasefire by Mr Sadr, saying: "This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honour to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens."
Senior members of the Sadrist movement had called for the ceasefire not to be renewed, saying that the US was using it to detain its members, claiming they were renegades or belonged to "special units" controlled by Iran. The Sadrists are also coming under attack from local security forces which are controlled by its Shia rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its military wing the Badr Organisation.Reuse content