Al-Sadr's Fragile Peace

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Wissam Al-Okaili / AFP / Getty

Iraqi Shi'ite firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army

Senior U.S. officials in Baghdad don't seem too worried that the six-month deadline Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr set for his militia's unilateral cease-fire is about to lapse. "There has been some communication back and forth that appears to indicate that it will continue," said Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. U.S. officials say the cease-fire was a major factor in lowering violence across Iraq, where an ongoing surge of U.S. forces is now focused primarily on fighting Sunni extremists. "I would say it probably caused us about a 15 or 20% decrease in attack levels," said Gen. Raymond Odierno, the ground commander for U.S. troops in Iraq.

But Wednesday, echoing an earlier threat, a spokesman for Sadr and the Mahdi Army said that if the Shi'ite warlord did not reissue his cease-fire order by Saturday, it would be officially over. Petraeus, Odierno and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are all holding out hope that the cease-fire will be maintained, however. Petraeus said U.S. commanders were keeping up a running dialogue with leadership from the Mahdi Army. "There are numerous discussions ongoing," said Petraeus, who's personally spoken with senior figures in Sadr's circle. "And there's talks at my level, sometimes directly on occasion with senior members of the movement."

The cease-fire had its origins in intra-Shi'a rivalries. Most observers were surprised last August when Sadr's Mahdi Army militia announced a six-month cease-fire, shortly after bloody Shi'ite infighting erupted in Karbala. Thousands of pilgrims had gathered in the city for a Shi'ite festival. Some Sadrists who turned up for the event got into an altercation with local security forces, who are largely loyal to the Sadr movement's chief Shi'ite factional rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). Things escalated, and a street tussle turned into a gun battle that left more than 50 people dead and roughly 500 wounded. The Sadrists took the blame for starting the episode, with many Shi'ites viewing the Mahdi Army fighters as thugs causing trouble in one of the holiest Shi'ite sites. Sadr announced his cease-fire immediately after that, stressing that his fighters would take no action against either U.S. forces or rival Shi'ite factions.

Leadership figures from the Mahdi Army have long accused government security forces of being under the sway of SIIC, which is led by Sadr's chief political rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Until August, the Mahdi Army and the militia wing of al-Hakim's movement, the Badr Brigade, were engaged in a running struggle for influence in southern Iraq, competing for control of everything from gas stations to sacred shrines. The Karbala incident seemed to shock both sides into cooling tensions. But the recent statements suggest the agreement is unraveling. If so, it could draw U.S. troops back into conflict with the Mahdi Army as they work to support Iraqi security forces.

U.S. officials are hoping that Sadr will largely abandon Kalashnikov politics and focus his movement more on social causes as the need for militias to protect neighborhoods from Sunni extremists recedes. "I kind of think it will hold," Crocker said of the ceasefire. "The Shi'a are just as sick of militia violence as the Sunnis are." But Sadr is notoriously unpredictable. And while allowing for some optimism, U.S. officials remain unsure what will unfold. "It truly is a wait-and-see moment," Petraeus said.