The Shia nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suspended the activities of his powerful Mehdi Army militia for six months yesterday after clashes in the holy city of Kerbala killed 52 people and forced hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to flee.
His spokesman, Sheikh Hazim al-Araji, said in a statement on state television that the aim was to "rehabilitate" the militia, which is currently divided into factions. Significantly, Mr Araji said that the Mehdi Army will no longer make attacks on US and other coalition forces. This may ease the pressure on British troops in Basra, who have come under repeated attack from the Mehdi Army.
The surprise move by Mr Sadr eases fears that escalating battles between Shia militias were turning into an intra-Shia civil war. The Mehdi Army has been battling police and security forces in Kerbala that are largely manned by the Badr Organisation, the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC).
In the hours before Mr Sadr's statement there were widespread attacks on SIIC offices in Baghdad and Shia cities in southern Iraq by Mehdi Army militiamen. They accused the SIIC of being behind attacks on pilgrims who were shouting Sadrist slogans. Another spokesman for Mr Sadr, Ahmed al-Shaibani, denied the Mehdi Army was involved in the Kerbala battles.
Mr Sadr has long blamed factions of the Mehdi Army outside his control for attacking Sunni civilians and Iraqi government forces. Nevertheless his decision to stand down his militia shows he does not want a confrontation with the SIIC and the US at this time. He is also in effect blaming his own militiamen for the fierce gun battles in Kerbala that erupted on Monday as a million or more Shia pilgrims poured into the city to celebrate the birth of Imam al-Mahdi, the last of the 12 Shia imams, in the 9th century. The pilgrimage, along with other ritual events, has normally been a show of unity and strength by the Shia community.
Confusion still surrounds the cause of the fighting, which began as government security forces tried to police the vast numbers of pilgrims trying to visit the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, the founding martyrs of the Shia faith who were killed in the battle of Kerbala in 680. Devout Shia believe that the Imam al-Mahdi will return to earth to overthrow all tyrants and establish justice in the world.
Tight security was in place because of the fear of suicide bombers from al-Qa'ida in Iraq.
The police in Kerbala largely owe allegiance to the SIIC and are accused of shooting at pro-Sadrist pilgrims, who would have been accompanied by Sadrist or Mehdi Army militiamen for their own protection while marching to Kerbala. Security officials say that it was the Mehdi Army that opened fire on government security forces. Hours before Mr Sadr's statement, an al-Arabiya television correspondent said that there were still many Mehdi Army militiamen deploying in the centre of Kerbala waving their guns in the air.
Earlier, angry crowds had surged through the city streets attacking police and mosque guards and setting fire to two ambulances. Three small hotels were also set ablaze. Militiamen fired automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Many pilgrims were trapped inside the shrines.
The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had rushed to Kerbala earlier to meet local officials and arrange for pilgrims to get out of the city. He blamed "outlawed armed criminal gangs from the remnants of the buried Saddam regime" for the fighting and sacked Major-General Salih al-Maliki, the head of the Kerbala command centre.
The statement from Mr Sadr said: "We declare the freezing [of all action by] the Mehdi Army without exception in order to rehabilitate it in a way that will safeguard its ideological image within a maximum period of six months, starting from the day this statement is issued." It is not clear what rehabilitation will mean, but presumably Mr Sadr will seek to purge the militia of officers he does not control.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, US forces have released eight Iranians, including two diplomats, who were arrested, blindfolded and handcuffed in the Sheraton hotel because their bodyguards were carrying unauthorised weapons. The Iranians were were there as part of a delegation holding talks on building a power plant.