The Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will have talks with senior religious leaders and will disband his powerful Mehdi Army militia if they ask him to do so, one of his aides said yesterday.
Mr Sadr's surprise move is aimed at preventing an all-out assault on his militiamen by the Iraqi government, backed by US military forces in Iraq, as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, criticised the Mehdi Army by name.
He also said that parties which continued to maintain militias would not be allowed to take part in the provincial elections this year.
Hassan Zarqani, a senior aide of Mr Sadr, said that he would seek rulings from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other senior Shia clerics in Iran on whether or not he should dissolve the Mehdi Army, which was established in 2003 and is believed to be at least 70,000 strong. The latest round of fighting has left the Sadrist movement politically isolated.
The US has long been hostile to the Sadrists, whose central policy is an end to the US occupation. Mr Maliki has become more and more hostile to them though they helped him become Prime Minister in 2007. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the main political support for the government, is a traditional rival to Mr Sadr and wants to damage his movement before the October election, in which the Sadrists are expected to do well.
Often portrayed in the Western media as a "firebrand" cleric, Mr Sadr has behaved with caution since his militiamen fought the US Marines in Najaf in 2003. He sees himself as a religious and political leader rather than a military chief. Almost all the main political supporters of the present Iraqi government maintain militias, though these are usually wearing police or army uniforms.