Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric, has ordered his followers to put down their weapons temporarily, three of his aides told...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric whose Mahdi army is arguably Iraq’s most powerful armed group, has ordered his followers to put down their weapons temporarily, three of his aides told McClatchy Newspapers on Friday.

Analysts differed on the significance of the directive, which al-Sadr delivered in secret to his commanders two weeks ago in the southern city of Kufa. Some saw it as al-Sadr’s way of distancing himself from rising sectarian violence, most of which has been blamed on his followers.

Others said the order was little more than an effort by al-Sadr to head off an offensive by American and Iraqi forces against his militia, which increasingly is seen as a shadow sectarian security force. Controlling many of Iraq’s larger cities, the Mahdi uses its political hold on several government ministries to win new supporters.

“The American and the Iraqi governments are starting to feel how powerful he is getting. It’s obvious that both of them are fed up,” said Mithal Alusi, a secular Shiite member of parliament. “That’s why the Sadrists are playing a tactical game: to quiet the attacks and buy time.”

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Whichever view is correct, al-Sadr’s directives suggest that his organization is feeling pressure to curb the violence between Shiites and their Sunni Muslim rivals. U.S. officials have blamed al-Sadr for much of the killing and have pledged to move against his forces.

Iraqi army troops clashed with Mahdi army members last month in Diwaniya, and tensions have been rising with U.S. troops, who detained al-Sadr supporters meeting this month in Najaf.

U.S. troops fought pitched battles with al-Sadr’s forces twice in 2004. Both times, al-Sadr’s forces took heavy casualties but the cleric survived, and his militia grew stronger.

Now many think the Mahdi army controls security in much of Iraq through death squads and its infiltration and intimidation of Iraqi security forces. Al-Sadr’s political supporters are influential with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who won his post through the backing of al-Sadr, who controls the largest voting bloc in the parliament.

Analysts also think that al-Sadr is having trouble controlling his organization. Some militant members have criticized him for joining the political process last year, accusing him of straying from his pledge to reject the American-created government and rid Iraq of foreign forces.

A senior U.S. military official said this week that at least six former Mahdi army leaders no longer answer to al-Sadr.

Those leaders now are members of rival groups that are competing for power, popularity and money from the same sources as al-Sadr.

“What you do see over time is that you’ll see guys, who, for whatever reason, become motivated to become more militant, and the militant elements find the political framework confining,” the U.S. military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I’ll tell you as time goes on, you’re going to continue to see elements break off the organization and become sort of these semi-independent or independent players, but none of them remain independent for long. They all find a sponsor.”

Regaining control may be one reason that al-Sadr issued his four-point mandate orally to his commanders.

According to three top al-Sadr aides, who agreed to discuss the meeting only if they weren’t identified because it had been secret, al-Sadr told the commanders to:

• Reduce the size of units to 75 fighters, from as many as 400, to make the units more manageable.

• Issue new identification cards to Mahdi army members to replace IDs that have been forged.

• Send every member to an orientation course that would outline the group’s mission.

• Lay down weapons temporarily.

The last directive is intended to flush out armed groups who say they’re part of the Mahdi army but in fact don’t answer to al-Sadr. No armed operation is to be undertaken, the aides said, without al-Sadr’s permission.

“As long as we don’t have orders, we can’t do anything. The Mahdi army will be known as only fighting the Americans,” a top Mahdi army leader in Kufa said Friday.

It remains to be seen whether al-Sadr’s directive will be followed.

There’s been no drop in sectarian killings in the days since al-Sadr supposedly issued his orders.

Clerics aligned with him offered little moderation in their sermons Friday.

In remarks Friday aimed at Prime Minister Maliki, Sheik Mouad al Khazraji, an al-Sadr supporter, told worshippers: “The arms that fight the tyrants are still alive. The weapons, which helped you become prime minister, are still full with powder and we are ready to teach you and your master” — referring to the Americans — “a lesson in endurance. Our patience has limits.”

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