BAGHDAD — Firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr announced Wednesday that he's temporarily suspending the activities of his feared Mahdi Army militia so that the organization can be restructured.
The announcement, a day after Mahdi Army members were accused of inciting clashes in Karbala that killed at least 52 people, seemed to be a startling admission that the militia, which twice fought brutal uprisings against U.S. troops and has been blamed for thousands of death-squad killings, was no longer under Sadr's control.
American officials in Baghdad and Washington greeted word of the suspension cautiously, calling it an encouraging sign but saying it would take time to determine the impact of Sadr's announcement.
Meanwhile, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said higher-level officers had ordered the detentions Tuesday of eight Iranian officials who were in Iraq to meet with officials of Ministry of Electricity.
The spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, didn't say who issued the order, but said it came after American troops had allowed the Iranians and their Iraqi security guards to pass through a checkpoint and proceed to the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel in central Baghdad. Garver said the U.S. soldiers had confiscated an AK-47 that the Iraqis were carrying.
After the Iranians left the checkpoint, other officers ordered American troops to follow them to the hotel, Garver said. There, the soldiers searched the Iranians' rooms, detained them and led them blindfolded from the hotel for questioning. U.S. soldiers confiscated a laptop computer, cell phones and a briefcase full of Iranian and American currency, Garver said.
The Iranians were released Wednesday after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki complained. It was unclear whether the confiscated items had been returned.
The arrests were the latest in a series of U.S. actions against Iranian officials in Iraq on official business. The U.S. is still holding, over Iraqi objections, five Iranians who were detained last year after American officials accused them of plotting attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces.
If the Mahdi Army stands down, that could ease what American officials have said is their greatest long-term worry about Iraq's stability: a prolonged conflict between the Mahdi Army and a rival Shiite militia for control of Shiite areas.
Sadr said the Mahdi Army would suspend operations for up to six months while it was restructured, but many Iraqis wondered whether militia members would obey his directive. Witnesses to Tuesday's clashes in Karbala said Mahdi Army fighters openly defied calls from a top Sadr official who was trying to calm the conflict.
There were reports from Baghdad, Najaf and Kufa that Mahdi Army members were continuing to attack offices that belonged to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a Shiite political party whose armed wing, the Badr Organization, is locked in a bitter fight with the Mahdi Army for control of Iraq's Shiite areas.
Maliki flew to Karbala on Wednesday, where he fired the Iraqi military commander in charge of the city and relieved other officers "who didn't do their duties." He ordered the Iraqi army and air force to take up stations around the city's two Shiite shrines and pledged that those responsible for Tuesday's violence would be arrested.
Abdel Aal al Yasiri, the head of the Karbala provincial council, said quiet had returned and that Iraqi soldiers had taken up positions at the entrances to the city. "The security forces are still chasing some suspects," he said.
Officials were still trying to explain Tuesday's violence, which came as hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims flooded the city to commemorate the birth of the 12th imam who Shiites believe will one day reappear to bring salvation. The imam is known as the Mahdi, for whom Sadr named his army.
Witnesses said the violence started after suspected members of the Mahdi Army clashed with guards at the Imam Hussein shrine, which honors the great-grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Some witnesses speculated that the Mahdi Army members attacked police at the shrine because they were affiliated with the Badr Organization, which has infiltrated the police.
Witnesses said the men had taunted the pilgrims and shouted insults about the family of Abdul-Aziz al Hakim, the Shiite cleric who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. They accused Hakim of being beholden to Iran, where he lived in exile during Saddam Hussein's regime. The Iranian government was instrumental in the creation of the Badr Organization and the council.
"Hakim is a betrayer. You are all Iranians and we will teach you a lesson," the men reportedly shouted.
At one point, Abdel Hadi al Mohammadawi, the head of the Sadr office in Karbala, called through a loudspeaker in an effort to calm the demonstrators, witnesses said. "Stop. This is not on the orders of Sayed Muqtada al Sadr," one witness quoted him as saying.
Instead, one of the men grabbed the loudspeaker and urged on the Mahdi Army members.
(Collins reports for The Fresno Bee. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)