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Cease-fire has strengthened Iraq's al-Sadr

BAGHDAD -- Moqtada al-Sadr's six-month freeze on attacks by his Mahdi Army has strengthened his hand and allowed him to purge dissidents from the ranks of the militia, analysts and aides of the Shiite cleric said.

Sadr, long a thorn in the side of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, is expected to announce Friday whether he will renew his unilateral cease-fire, set to expire Saturday.

"The decision will not be taken lightly and he will consider what our interests are," said Hazim al-Aajari, a Sadr confidant, speaking at his office in the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiyah in Baghdad.

Sadr is considering opinions from clerics, senior group members and members of parliament about his decision.

"They will all be studied," Aajari said.

Sadr ordered the six-month freeze in his militia's activities last Aug. 29 after allegations that his fighters were involved in bloody clashes in the shrine city of Karbala, near Najaf. Under the Muslim calendar, the cease-fire expires Saturday.

The pause has given Sadr a chance to strengthen his power base and purge his ranks of rogue fighters.

Aajari said the Mahdi Army, estimated to be some 60,000 strong and with broad support in the Shiite community, has been reorganized.

"We have isolated bad elements and we have prevented them from infiltrating the militia," he said.

British journalist Patrick Cockburn, author of "Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq" due to be published in May, believes the cease-fire is also aimed at ridding the militia of its reputation as a haven for death squads and criminals.

The American military, which clashed with the Mahdi Army twice in 2004, was at first skeptical about the cease-fire — but now has nothing but praise.

"Moqtada al-Sadr's efforts in the cease-fire have been productive," said U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith. Sadr and his supporters "recognize the responsible role they play in the Shiite community," he said.

Sadr forces have also clashed with forces from a rival Shiite group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

Competition between the two Shiite factions has often been violent, with a number of officials on either side assassinated.

The Mahdi Army has received nothing in return for the cease-fire, Aajari said.

"On the contrary, more than 1,000 of our members have been detained by the occupation (the U.S.-led forces), especially in Diwaniyah, Karbala and Baghdad,"he said.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government "has not respected" the cease-fire, said Falah Hassan Shanshal, a Sadrist member of parliament.

"They have killed, arrested and tortured our members," he told AFP at his home in the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. "They are open to humiliation."

"When you stretch out your hand you should shake it and show respect. Not hold on to cut it," Shanshal said.

But he insists that rank-and-file Mahdi Army members, most of whom are keen on returning to fight, will respect their leader's decision. "We forgive but we do not forget," he added, however.

The Mahdi Army has many other options beyond violence. "We could organize a strike that would paralyze all life in Baghdad," Shanshal warned.

For Cockburn, Sadr has no incentive to end the cease-fire.

"Does he want a big fight with the American army? Probably not," said Cockburn, interviewed by telephone from London.

"Does he want to fight with Badr? Probably not. I don't see what he could get from the end of the truce. I'd be surprised if he didn't renew it."

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