Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has threatened to lift by the end of the week a six-month cease-fire widely credited with helping reduce violence in Iraq, officials said Wednesday.
Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying that the cease-fire was extended "then that means the freeze is over."
The cease-fire was declared in August and due to expire at this month's end.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is among the most powerful militias in Iraq. The crux of the message being sent by the organization was that al-Sadr followers would be free to resume their activities if no message was sent by the cleric on Feb. 23.
According to al-Obeidi, this "has been conveyed to all Mahdi Army members nationwide."
The threat was confirmed by another al-Sadr official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.S. military has welcomed the cease-fire, saying it is a major factor in the estimated 60 percent decline in violence in the country in the second half of 2007.
Military continues raids
But the military has insisted on continuing to stage raids against what it calls Iranian-backed breakaway factions of the Mahdi Army militia, and anger among the cleric's followers has been building.
Influential members of al-Sadr's movement said recently that they had urged the anti-U.S. cleric to call off the cease-fire when it expires.
Al-Sadr's followers claim the U.S.-Iraqi raids, particularly in the southern Shiite cities of Diwaniyah, Basra and Karbala, are a pretext to crack down on the wider movement.
The maverick cleric announced earlier this month that he would not renew the order unless the Iraqi government purges "criminal gangs" operating within security forces he claims are targeting his followers.
That was a reference to rival Shiite militiamen from the Badr Brigade who have infiltrated security forces participating in the ongoing crackdown. The Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army also are involved in a violent power struggle for control of the oil-rich south.