The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his militia to suspend activities for six months in announcement issued a day after dozens were killed during firefights between his fighters and a rival Shiite group during a religious festival in Karbala.
Up to 52 people were killed and 279 were wounded, the local health authorities reported Wednesday, when men with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades fought street battles amid crowds of pilgrims on Tuesday.
Al-Sadr’s statement was issued from his office in Najaf, and read by an aide. Besides instructing his men to suspend their activities for six months, it also ordered a formal period of mourning over the events in Karbala and urged the government to investigate.
Witnesses said Tuesday that members of the Mahdi Army, the militia of al-Sadr, traded fire with security forces loyal to the government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.
Ahmad Al-Shaibani, the head of the media department in al-Sadr’s office in Najaf, accused security forces opening fire on pilgrims and Sadrists.
“This decision will have great advantage: It will distinguish and isolate those who claim to be working for JAM and they are actually not part of it,” he told reporters in Najaf, using the initials of the Arabic for Mahdi Army’s, Jaish al-Mahdi. “JAM is a huge and active body in Iraq, but there are some intruders who want to create rifts. We don’t have masked men working with us. There are people even from the forces of occupation who work and say that they are from JAM.”
“We announce our readiness to cooperate with the state to end those intruders, who are considered members of JAM,” he said.
He said the order meant there would be a halt to military operations, including a conditional halt to actions directed against the occupation forces.
“If there will be any provocative actions by them, we will consider this later,” he said. “People should not understand that we are resorting to peaceful resistance. This is not our strategy. We followed that in the past and it didn’t work. Our participation in the political process does not mean ending the resistance to the occupier, but we will stop for six months.”
The government forces in Karbala and other towns in southern Iraq are dominated by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its armed wing, the Badr Organization. Many Badr fighters are veterans trained by Iran when they lived there as exiles under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Tensions between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization have simmered for months. Both are vying for control of the overwhelmingly Shiite regions of central and southern Iraq. Two provincial governors belonging to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council were assassinated in southern Iraq this month, although the Sadrists deny involvement.
The showdown will prove embarrassing for al-Maliki if his security forces cannot control the Mahdi Army and restore order in a holy city in his own Shiite heartland.
The violence appeared to spread to other cities, although attacks on mosques and offices linked to the Badr Organization were on a much smaller scale.