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Is the Mahdi Army's 'cease-fire' over?

Recent clashes between the militia and Iraqi forces threaten to undo a lull in the group's activities.

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"It's limited in terms of scope and scale … we do not view it as a widespread issue and concern outside of Kut," Admiral Smith told reporters during a briefing in Baghdad.

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The US military continues to say that Al Qaeda is the No. 1 threat in Iraq, and Smith highlighted this Sunday by speaking about a group of 48 fighters that have been detained by US troops over the past four months. He said all came over the Syrian border to carry out suicide attacks in Iraq. He said their average age was 22 and that 40 percent were Saudi.

But a pattern of violence in southern Iraq over the past week highlights another threat, too.

Four American soldiers were killed in two separate attacks in southern Iraq Wednesday, a day after a powerful roadside bomb, similar to those Washington accuses Iran of shipping to Iraq, struck a bus near the southern city of Nasiriyah, killing 16 civilians. On Saturday, 29 Katyusha rockets aimed at the US consulate in Hilla, south of Baghdad, hit a residential neighborhood instead, wounding nine.

Abadi voiced concern that there may be confusion at the moment among many rank-and-file Mahdi Army members as to whether the freeze ordered by Sadr was still on. This confusion may be prompting some to "carry out retaliatory attacks against Iraqi security forces."

Abadi says the militiamen appear to want revenge for the relentless raids and arrests carried out by the US and Iraqi forces against many elements of the Mahdi Army.

Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Mahamadawi, a cleric and one of Sadr's top lieutenants based in Karbala, south of Baghdad, says he has been instructed personally by Sadr to announce this past Friday in his prayer sermon that the freeze was still on.

"Otherwise lots of blood would be spilled … we continue to be intimidated beyond belief by Iraqi forces … but Sayyed [honorific] Moqtada believes it's better to be the oppressed than the oppressor," he said in a telephone interview from Karbala.

Underscoring the fissures within the Mahdi Army, Mr. Mahamadawi says the confusion about the freeze arose on March 8 when Sadr, who last appeared in public in May 2007, responded in a statement to a question from one of his followers about the legitimacy of self-defense by saying: "I sympathize with those killed while defending themselves and their loved ones during [government] raids."

Days before, Sadr issued another statement, also apparently in response to a query from a follower who complained that they "were demoralized by his long absence."

"Every leader needs to become more well rounded.… I dedicated to you and society a big part of my life to the point where I have become weaker, sicker, and more anxious. I deserve time to myself to study. Would not you rather have a more learned leader?" he said in the statement. "I have [also] withdrawn from the scene to protest against the fact Iraq remains under occupation and the disobedience of many followers."