Page last updated at 22:52 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 23:52 UK

Mehdi Army to give peace a chance?

Members of the Mehdi Army (2005)
The 60,000-strong Mehdi Army was created in 2003

Influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr is expected to use Friday prayers to tell members of his Mehdi Army militia that they should stop carrying weapons for the time being.

The BBC's Crispin Thorold in Baghdad assesses this latest move by the Shia leader.

The war is not yet over for the Mehdi Army, but the Shia militia appears to be giving peace a chance.

Moqtada Sadr's spokesman has told the BBC that until the future status of US troops in Iraq is decided, no member of the Mehdi Army may carry weapons on the streets.

At the moment the Iraqi government and the American administration are negotiating a status of forces agreement, which should determine the future role of US troops in this country.

"We have to see if the agreement will set a timetable for pulling out US troops from Iraq," Sheikh Obeidi, a spokesman for the Sadrist movement, told the BBC.

"[When a deal is reached] we will act accordingly. Resisting the occupation remains a legitimate right. However we will not resist the occupation until the completion of the agreement."

Sheikh Obeidi, Moqtada Sadr's spokesman
Resisting the occupation will be the responsibility of a limited number of Mehdi Army members
Sheikh Obeidi
The Sadrist movement was once the most powerful political and military Shia force in Iraq but it has faced a number of setbacks in recent months.

Earlier this year, the Iraqi security forces with strong American and British backing targeted the militia in Baghdad, Basra and other parts of southern Iraq.

Hundreds of people were killed and after local ceasefires the militia disappeared from the streets. Senior members of the Sadrist movement were arrested or fled their homes.

The areas where Moqtada Sadr has strong support have recently been quiet, but the Mehdi Army has retained its weapons.

The group's current strength and the degree of support for Moqtada Sadr are two of the great unanswered questions in Iraq today.

Restructuring tactics

What is clear is that there has been a strategic rethink about the future shape of the Mehdi Army. In a series of letters and statements over the past few months Mr Sadr and his chief lieutenants have transformed the militia's make-up.

Most significant was a letter from Mr Sadr, which was read after Friday prayers in Kufa on 13 June 2008.

A supporter of Moqtada Sadr holds a picture of the Shia cleric (July 2008)
The elections will show if Moqtada Sadr's mass support has weakened

It announced the division of the militia into two sections - a large group which "is going to transition in to a civilian movement dealing with religious, social and cultural affairs" and smaller "special companies" of fighters.

"Resisting the occupation will be the responsibility of a limited number of Mehdi Army members," said Sheikh Obeidi, Mr Sadr's spokesman.

"They will be named secretly by religious leaders in the Mehdi Army."

According to close observers of Iraq like the American academic, Anthony Cordesman, this is "worrisome because the restructuring mirrors the structure of Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah [in Lebanon]".

There is little doubt that the recent setbacks that the Mehdi Army has faced have forced this re-organisation, but Mr Sadr has also proven himself to be a canny strategist in recent years.

In August 2007 the militia declared a ceasefire - almost overnight the number of deaths in Iraq dropped dramatically.

The announcement was an important factor in the major decline in violence over the past year.

Weakened support?

The Sadrists are also an important bloc in the national parliament - they have 32 MPs (out of 275 seats) - and until April 2007 there were Sadrist cabinet ministers.

The group left the government in protest against a lack of a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

Ending the US occupation has been a consistent demand of the group and it is a call that is likely to be heard in campaigning for the key provincial elections that are due to be held later this year.

Those polls will give an indication of whether Moqtada Sadr's mass support has been weakened by the government military operations and the criminality of many individual militiamen.

Although Sadrists will not contest seats, the movement will support "independents" across the Shia south.

Also critical is the way that the central government and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki involve Mr Sadr in Iraq's future.

Mr Maliki is from another Shia faction and many Sadrists believe that he ordered the military operations in Basra to weaken his political opponent.

"If Sadr is excluded from Iraq's political process, feels the process is unfair, or [if the cleric] chooses to mix politics with violence, the Mehdi Army could again become a major threat," said Mr Cordesman in a recent report.

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