NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr sent his fighters home on Wednesday in what may mark the end of a 10-week revolt against U.S.-led forces that once engulfed southern Iraq and Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines.
With the formal end of U.S.-led occupation just two weeks away, Sadr issued a statement from his base in Najaf calling on his Mehdi Army militiamen to go home.
“Each of the individuals of the Mehdi Army, the loyalists who made sacrifices…should return to their governorates to do their duty,” the statement said.
That call came a day after President Bush said the United States would not oppose a political role for Sadr — only weeks after branding him an anti-democratic thug.
Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led administration in Iraq, suggested Sadr caved in to U.S. military pressure and moderate Shi’ite clerics who brokered a truce between his militia and American forces.
“He is seeking to save face. Iraqi political leaders are working out agreements with him. He has expressed his support for the interim government, which was unheard of many weeks ago,” he told CNN.
Sadr’s ragtag fighters, mostly from the slums of Baghdad and impoverished southern villages, had launched an uprising on April 4, overrunning police stations and public buildings in several towns in a bold challenge to U.S.-led forces.
This month the unpredictable young cleric agreed a truce with the U.S. military and Iraqi authorities after weeks of fighting in the Shi’ite shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala.
Sadr’s office sent a letter to the Shi’ite religious establishment on Wednesday, saying Iraqi police would be welcome back in his stronghold of Kufa, near Najaf, where he has frequently delivered fiery anti-American sermons.
Initially, Sadr took the U.S. military by surprise with the scale of his revolt, launched after occupation authorities closed the young preacher’s newspaper, detained one of his top aides and announced that he was wanted for murder.
The April uprising, which coincided with heavy fighting between U.S. Marines and Sunni Muslim insurgents in Falluja, west of Baghdad, pushed Iraq closer toward bloody chaos.
But as the U.S. military fought back, the Mehdi Army’s rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles proved no match for warplanes, tanks and helicopter gunships.
Hundreds of Sadr’s black-clad militiamen with green headbands were killed in battles that spread to a sprawling ancient cemetery on the edge of Najaf and damaged mosques and shrines sacred to millions of Shi’ites across the world.
Apart from the huge casualty toll, Sadr was under pressure from moderate Shi’ite religious leaders opposed to his firebrand ways and appalled by fighting near holy shrines.
As the truce calmed the streets of Najaf and Karbala, Sadr played a new card, declaring conditional support for Iraq’s interim government and announcing plans to form a political party that could fight elections due to be held by January.
Some U.S. officials insist Sadr must face Iraqi justice in connection with the killing of a moderate cleric hacked to death in a Najaf shrine soon after last year’s U.S. invasion.
But Sadr’s unexpected flexibility seems to have opened political doors just before planned June 30 handover.
Interim President Ghazi al-Yawar said Sadr’s “smart move” could enable him to take part in mainstream politics.
Under a deal announced by the interim government this month, private militias are to be disbanded and members of illegal militias banned from political office for three years.
Despite Bush’s olive branch for Sadr, some U.S. officials say Sadr should be barred from politics.
“There is an Iraqi arrest warrant issued against Moqtada al-Sadr that ties him to a brutal murder, and I don’t see how he would be eligible for political office before that matter is resolved,” U.S. spokesman Dan Senor said on Tuesday.
National elections are due to be held by January 31 under a U.S.-backed plan for Iraq’s political transition.
As Iraqi leaders brace for the challenge of running a country suffering from violence and economic hardships, it seems Sadr may keep the interim government guessing.
“Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr enters into political matters. But this does not mean he will enter elections,” Sadr’s spokesman Qais al-Khazali told Reuters on Wednesday.
“Our position is clear, Sadr’s entry into politics will not be direct but we have ideas…There are no nominees or names suggested.”