Sadr calls six-month ceasefire to prevent civil war

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a world leader ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future