Two senior aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani–Abdul Mahdi al-Karbala’i and Ahmad al-Safi– were kidnapped on Tuesday by the Mahdi Army and are still being held as captives, according to the Kuwaiti News Organization. This report seems to confirm that the Mahdi Army attempted to take over the shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala under the cover of the festival of the birth of the 12th Imam, which had brought a million pilgrims into the city. The shrine is worth millions if not hundreds of millions in pilgrimage revenue annually, and is also a source of prestige among Shiites. The two kidnapped clerics had preached there.
PM Nuri al-Maliki confirmed that militiamen had attempted to take over the shrine, but he muddied the waters by calling the attackers “remnants of the Baath” and suggesting that they wanted to blow it up. Far more likely, they wanted to displace the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council from it and to start appropriating the monies from the pilgrimage trade for themselves.
Al-Maliki fired 1500 policemen in Karbala on Wednesday and dismissed the police chief, Major General Saleh Khazal Al-Maliki, on grounds of dereliction of duty. (It may be that the police were in some part recruited from or highly sympathetic to the Mahdi Army, and so they declined to intervene in its push to take the shrine by force).
In the aftermath of the fighting Tuesday in the holy city of Karbala between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and then attacks on SIIC offices in Baghdad by Mahdi Army fighters, the militia’s leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, called Wednesday for it to lay down its arms for 6 months.
My guess is that Muqtada realizes that his men went too far, in trying to take the shrine of Imam Husayn by main force, and in disrupting a major Shiite festival. These actions would be highly unpopular in the Shiite street, and could cost Muqtada some of his otherwise impressive popularity in the South. Aljazeera showed him speaking in Najaf, by the way, putting the lie to Bush administration allegations that he had gone into hiding in Iran (that was just a smear, since he prides himself on his Iraq nationalism).
Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Muqtada said: “We considered it beneficial to freeze the Mahdi Army without exception, in order to rebuild its structure in such a way as to preserve its doctrinal heading– for a period of 6 months from the issuing of this decision.” He added, “We also announce three days of mourning, and the closing of the offices of the Martyr Sadr thoughout Iraq, the wearing of black, the holding of mourning sessions.” He urged the public to investigate what had occured in Karbala.