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Al-Sadr Extends Cease-Fire, Orders Peaceful Protest

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has extended indefinitely a ceasefire for his Al-Mahdi militia and ordered his followers to protest peacefully against the U.S. occupation.

"The freezing of the Al-Mahdi Army is considered valid until further notice, and anyone who violates this order will not be considered part of the Al-Mahdi Army," al-Sadr said in a handwritten statement read by senior aide Hazim al-Araji in the cleric's offices in the southern Shi'ite city of Najaf.

The influential anti-American cleric has issued orders curtailing and redefining the activities of his Al-Mahdi Army fighters after Iraqi government and U.S. forces defeated them in Baghdad and the southern city of Al-Basrah this year.

Al-Sadr said earlier this month he would dissolve the militia if U.S. troops started withdrawing from Iraq according to a fixed timetable -- something Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought in negotiations with Washington.

In June, al-Sadr decreed that only a select group of the Al-Mahdi Army, named after the revered 9th Century Shi'ite Imam al-Mahdi, would be authorized to battle U.S. forces in Iraq.

He commanded the bulk of his followers instead to work against western cultural, social, and religious domination.

Those orders followed al-Sadr's move a year ago to freeze the militia's activities for six months on the heels of gun battles among rival Shi'ite factions that killed dozens of people in the holy city of Karbala. He extended the ceasefire for another six months in February of this year.

Those ceasefires are widely seen to have contributed to a dramatic drop in violence across Iraq.

But there are doubts over the degree of control over the militia wielded by the reclusive cleric, who is believed to be hiding in the Iranian city of Qom as he pursues Islamic studies.

The United States has turned its focus to rogue members of the Al-Mahdi Army, which it calls "special groups" and which it blames for sophisticated attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, included the use of lethal armor-piercing bombs.

Al-Sadr also called on followers to turn to nonviolent protest against the U.S. presence in Iraq.

"The first Friday of Ramadan every year will be devoted to rejecting and condemning the occupation by peaceful means," he said in the statement.

"After Friday prayers, we will go out, we will reject, we will condemn the American occupation."