BAGHDAD — In a statement read in 200 mosques across Iraq, Muqtada al Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric who's become a recluse as he studies to boost his religious credentials, asked his Mahdi Army militia to continue to stand down for another six months.
The announcement prompted a sigh of relief from Iraqi and U.S. officials, who credit the past six-month freeze for some of the drop in the country's violence. The Iraqi government welcomed the news in a statement calling the Sadr movement "a cornerstone of the political process on the path to building a new Iraq."
In his statement, Sadr thanked his followers for adhering to the cease-fire. “For you I give my great thanks and appreciation for your understanding, patience, Jihad, and continuing rejection of unfaithfulness and the infidel," the statement said.
The cleric froze his militia's activities after Mahdi Army members were accused of inciting clashes in Karbala that killed at least 52 people on the birthday of the Imam Mahdi, who most Shiites believe was the 12th and final imam who will return with Jesus on Judgment Day. Now Sadr won't lift the freeze until that holiday returns.
"It's very important that the future of Iraq in general moves towards calm, and we do not want to be the reason for any kind of bad actions," said Salah al Obaidi, a top Sadr aide. "(Sadr) said that I have established this army and this title not for selfishness but for self-securing in need of self-building."
The statement was filled with poetic prayers and eloquent calls for patience and piousness. Over the last six months, Sadrists have protested hundreds of arrests of their members and scare tactics against their families by Iraqi government security forces, largely controlled by the rival Shiite party the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
The cease-fire wasn't met with universal support.
As the cleric read Sadr’s statement in Kufa, Hameed Hassan Ali wept.
“Sayed Muqtada’s orders are to be followed blindly; he has better knowledge of our destiny,” the 28-year-old Mahdi Army member said. “This second freeze has humiliated us because anyone, no matter who, has started targeting us and we became weak; but we cannot do anything contrary to Sayed Muqtada’s orders.”
Radhi Majeed, 37, also of Kufa, said Mahdi Army members ought to be able to respond when attacked.
"He must allow us to defend ourselves when someone accosts us, because another period of suspension will be exploited by the government to target Sadrists, fill the prisons with them and unsettle their families," Majeed said.
Others welcomed the extension.
"Sayed Muqtada knows about us more than we know about ourselves, and may this decision be in our best interest," said Hameed Waleed, 30 and a resident of Sadr City.
(McClatchy special correspondent Zein reported from Kufa. Special correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this article from Baghdad.)