Sadr promises to disband militia if U.S. sets Iraq withdrawal date

BAGHDAD — Muqtada al Sadr, the Shiite Muslim cleric who made his reputation by opposing the American presence in Iraq, will disband the armed wing of his militia if a new Iraq-U.S. security agreement includes a date for an American withdrawal, a key Sadr aide said Friday.

Salah al Obaidi, a spokesman for the cleric, said Sadr's Mahdi Army would review the security agreement closely to see how precisely it spelled out when the U.S. troop presence would end.

"It depends on what this agreement brings us," he said. "When there is no more occupation, there will be no need for these cells."

The pronouncement could give Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki a potent incentive to press the United States for a specific withdrawal date.

Iraqi officials told McClatchy earlier this week that the negotiations on a security agreement are nearing a close and that the current draft of the agreement includes a date of June 30, 2009, for American troops to withdraw from Iraq's cities. U.S. combat forces would be gone "by 2011," said a senior Iraqi official who's been participating in the talks.

But those dates could change, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deal is still being negotiated.

Maliki is said to be concerned that the current draft of the agreement doesn't assert enough Iraqi authority over the conduct of American troops.

Sadr's Mahdi Army has been responsible for much of the bloodshed in Iraq since 2006, and its transformation into an unarmed cultural, social and educational organization would enhance Maliki's reputation ahead of upcoming provincial elections.

Sadr announced in June that he was creating a separate wing of his organization to battle American forces, while the rest of it would be dedicated to social causes.

Iraqi officials greeted Sadr's pledge skeptically.

"I don't trust this guy," said one official, who declined to be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss the subject.

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