BAGHDAD, Aug. 7, 2008 — -- The anti-American cleric who launched the Shiite insurgency in Iraq four years ago, sparking a cycle of violence that killed scores of U.S. soldiers and led to a sectarian war, will transform his militia into a mostly nonviolent social organization, his office tells ABC News.
Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to focus on education and science instead of violence cements a shift that began almost one year ago, when he asked his followers to freeze their actions against the U.S. military and the Iraqi government.
The freeze was one of the main reasons that violence in Iraq has dropped to the lowest levels in four years for both civilians and troops. But before today, he had never stepped so far back from the armed insurgency that gave him a widespread following.
"This army is cultural, religious, social and in charge of cultural and scientific jihad -- to liberate minds and hearts and souls from the secular Western tide and which forbids using weapons, ever," reads a two-page flier that announces the change and has been posted in Shiite areas around the country. "We give you this flier… to call for what's right and forbid what's wrong in an ethical way -- through tongue and heart, only."
The group will now focus on educational programs and support Iraq's infrastructure, including gas delivery and neighborhood cleanup, according to a spokesman. And the name will change from Mahdi Army to Al-Mumahidoon, which translates roughly to "The Pavers," as in the ones who will pave the way for the reappearance of the Shiite 12th imam.
"This leaflet is the constitution for joining the Al-Mumahidoon," said Abu Sajjad, a resident of Sadr City, standing in front of a flier posted on the wall. "This is one of the best decisions made by the leader Moqtada. Carrying weapons should only be left to the people who are specialized in this."
Sadr, who is referred to as Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr because he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammed, apparently will not entirely give up resisting the people he still refers to as "the occupiers."
Salah al-Ubaidi, his spokesman, tells ABC News that "during Friday prayers we'll announce the launching of the project of a general education for the Sadrists where Moqtada al-Sadr divides the Mahdi Army into two parts: where the biggest and most important of them is intellectual and social work. And the smallest portion will be in charge of the resistance project."
But in official and unofficial statements made in the last few months, Sadr has severely restricted who could fight the United States in his name and, perhaps more importantly, where they could fight.
In a statement released last week, he placed a list of new conditions on the Mahdi Army, including that "armed actions should never take place in cities" and "armed actions should never take place in a way to harm people." He told followers "not to target the government even if it was an unjust one, for there is not any religious permission to do so."
Some analysts urge caution before accepting Sadr's declaration to transform. It's not clear, they say, whether Sadr has control over all the fighters who have fought in his name -- the same fighters who have survived battles with the Iraqi military relatively unscathed.
"Most elements of [the Mahdi Army] that were involved in significant fighting managed to disengage from heavy fighting without having to disarm the Mahdi Army," writes Anthony Cordesman, an ABC News consultant, and Jose Ramos in a new paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Much depends, therefore, on both the future of the Sadrist movement and the Iraqi government's success in winning sustained popular support from Iraq's Shiites."
In March, in Basra and Sadr City, insurgents claiming to fight on behalf of Sadr attacked Iraqi and U.S. soldiers. In both cases, Sadr did not take credit for their actions, and the government called them outlaws. But both instances led to official cease-fires between the government and the Mahdi Army that were credited with bringing peace to two formerly violent areas.
In interviews with Sadr City residents, each expressed support for the announcement.
"If it takes us to carry weapons, then we will carry weapons. And if it takes us to be an intellectual army, then so be it," Muhammed Ridha, a resident of Sadr City, told ABC News.
Sadr officials hope the shift will help them in the next local elections, which won't take place until next year. Sadr boycotted the last provincial elections, in January 2005, a decision his aides have said they will not repeat.
It's not clear how the announcement will affect Sadr's chances to influence the elections, nor is it clear how it will play among Iraq's other Shiite groups.
"Intra-Shiite power struggles… will almost certainly play out over at least the next half decade. Whether this will lead to intra-Shiite violence, and how it will affect Iraq's broader sectarian and ethnic tensions, is beyond any reasonable ability to predict," write Cordesman and Ramos. "Only time can provide the answers."