Sadr Will Disband Troops in Case of Religious Ruling

NAJAF, Iraq -- Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr offered on Monday to disband his militia if the highest Shiite religious authority demands it, a shock announcement at a time when the group is the focus of an upsurge in fighting.

It was the first time Sadr had offered to dissolve the al-Mahdi Army militia, whose black-masked fighters have been principal actors throughout Iraq's five-year insurgence and the main foes of U.S. and Iraqi forces in widespread battles over recent weeks.

The news came on the day Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who launched a crackdown on the militia last month, ordered the militia to disband, threatening that Sadr's followers would be excluded from Iraqi political life.

Senior Sadr aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, as well as senior Shiite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the al-Mahdi Army, and would obey their orders.

"If they order the al-Mahdi Army to disband, Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement will obey the orders of the religious leaders," Zargani said from neighboring Iran, where U.S. officials say Sadr has spent most of the past year.

That puts the spotlight on the reclusive Sistani, 77, a cleric revered by all of Iraq's Shiite factions and whose edicts carry the force of Islamic law.

Sistani, who almost never leaves his house in Najaf, has intervened in Iraqi politics only a few times, but on each occasion his rulings have been decisive.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said he could not comment on the statement by Sadr's aide. Sistani's spokesman, Hamed al-Khafaf, declined to comment.

The developments come at a pivotal time, two days before Sadr has called a million followers onto the streets for anti-U.S. demonstrations and one day before the top U.S. officials in Iraq are due to brief Congress on progress.