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A picture of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr adorns the median in a street in eastern Baghdad on Thursday as a U.S. military convoy drives by. The religious leader called for a cessation of his militia's activities on Wednesday for six months. The militant wing is known as Jaish al-Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army.
A picture of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr adorns the median in a street in eastern Baghdad on Thursday as a U.S. military convoy drives by. The religious leader called for a cessation of his militia's activities on Wednesday for six months. The militant wing is known as Jaish al-Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army. (Les Neuhaus / S&S)

Mideast edition, Friday, August 31, 2007

BAGHDAD — Though the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr put his Mahdi Army on ice Wednesday, U.S. infantrymen patrolling the streets of eastern Baghdad, which are dominated by his followers, are maintaining a wary eye.

Al-Sadr ordered a six-month suspension of his militia’s activities in order to reorganize the force. The Associated Press quoted al-Sadr aides as saying it will no longer attack U.S. and coalition troops.

Leaders of the religious sect are pulling in the reins after a riot during a religious holiday, also named Mahdi, earlier this week in the Shiite-dominated city of Karbala left at least 52 dead and more than 300 injured, according to The Associated Press.

However, that matters little to the troops of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade, whose area of operations includes two districts bordering nearly 50 percent of Sadr City, the cleric’s stronghold.

“It’s not the first time he’s done it,” said Maj. Christopher Wendland, 35, of Chicago. “I guess we don’t see this as a milestone because we’ve seen it in the past. … But it does make us hopeful.”

Wendland is the executive officer of a battalion that patrols the streets of Zafaraniyah, a neighborhood to the south of Sadr City, every day.

His commander, Lt. Col. Wayne Grieme, said there were many splinter groups within the Mahdi Army, and his men would have to “wait and see” what happened next.

The brigade itself is responsible for the districts of Rusafa and New Baghdad as well as Karadah, which Grieme’s battalion patrols.

Grieme’s troops, and others in the brigade, are cautious when declarations such as al-Sadr’s are issued.

Their mission will carry forward, regardless, and round-the-clock operations hunting Mahdi militants from a small combat outpost where 75 percent of the battalion stays and launches the missions will persist. But with competition for Shiite constituencies being fierce, Mahdi loyalists might not give in so easily to their leader’s order.

“He (al-Sadr) is concerned things are getting out of control … and he needs to stay in charge of his movements,” said Joost Hiltermann, director of Middle East projects for the Brussels, Belgium-based International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. “If he loses control, then he risks rejection. If the people reject him, then he’s got nothing else.”

He said that U.S. forces — along with al-Qaida — could benefit from the infighting currently peaking between the Shiite leaders. And with a weak, or even nonexistent, central government unable to exert its security forces effectively, Hiltermann continued, a power vacuum could be left for American soldiers to monitor.

Though Zafaraniyah is Shiite-dominated, according to U.S. military officials, a substantial Sunni community resides in the area. But al-Qaida has not been a problem for Grieme’s men, who conduct their raids and other missions with members of the Iraqi Army’s 1st Division.

Zafaraniyah’s eastern boundary is shaped by the Diyala River, which drains slightly farther south into the Euphrates River. Its southern and western borders are formed by the banks of the Tigris River.

So, military officials say, the northern flank is the territory to watch, with militias from Jaish al-Mahdi, the formal name of the Mahdi Army, being the No. 1 threat to the unit’s territory.

Both the Mahdi militias and American forces have competed for residents’ loyalties, with each claiming victory. But with a cessation to the militia’s activities formerly declared, U.S. forces will go on doing what they do.

“Our mission is not dictated by anything that the militias do … but hopefully, we’ll have a few less firefights,” said the brigade’s public affairs officer, Maj. Sean Ryan.

Ryan said the perception from the brigade was that al-Sadr was trying to rebuild and regroup, instead of “waving the white flag.”

Hiltermann said al-Sadr and Said Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s grand ayatollah, are in a power struggle.

“That’s what the real battle is about,” Hiltermann said.

Some Iraqi security forces are also skeptical of al-Sadr’s decree.

“The violence has been raging since 2003, so I don’t believe it will decrease so easily,” Mathaq Abaas Shakewer, a young Iraqi policeman, said Thursday from the streets of Zafaraniyah.

Other residents are hopeful.

“He (Sadr) is a noble man,” said 31-year-old Qais Fayath Mahmoud, who says he is Sunni. “But this new order is good because they won’t attack the American or Iraqi police or army,” he said.

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