BAGHDAD - Followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will run candidates on other party tickets in upcoming Iraqi provincial elections, a top aide said Sunday, in an apparent bid to sidestep what they believe is a government campaign against their movement.
The decision is part of a sweeping strategic change by the militant cleric as the Shiite-led government gave Shiite militiamen in an al-Sadr stronghold four days to surrender heavy weapons or face arrest.
The new strategy includes a decision announced Friday by al-Sadr to set up an elite wing within his Mahdi Army to fight the Americans, enabling him to reassert control over his 60,000-strong militia that the U.S. says has fallen under Iranian influence.
Al-Sadr's followers hope to use this fall's provincial council balloting to loosen the grip on power that their Shiite rivals have enjoyed since the January 2005 elections, which the Sadrists boycotted.
"We are not boycotting the provincial elections," said Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a senior al-Sadr aide in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "We will participate but not in a clear list for Sadrists. We will support independent figures and people whom we find suitable."
Al-Obeidi also said any Sadrists who want to run in the elections would join other tickets and represent the movement on an individual basis.
The elections — expected to begin in October — will choose governing councils in Iraq's 18 provinces and are seen as a key step in repairing the country's sectarian rifts.
Most Sunnis also boycotted the January 2005 balloting, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power, even in areas with a substantial Sunni population.
The Sadrists now believe the 2005 boycott was a major political blunder, enabling Shiite parties that have cooperated with the Americans to wield power in the oil-rich Shiite heartland.
For months, however, the Sadrists have been complaining that their Shiite political rivals in the government have been targeting their movement, arresting many of their followers under the pretext of security crackdowns.
Sadrist officials had told reporters that many locally prominent supporters in the south were unwilling to run under the Sadrist banner for fear of arrest or harassment by security forces that are controlled by rival Shiite groups.
"We will be involved in the elections but not in the name of the Sadrist movement," al-Obeidi told The Associated Press. "So we will get rid of those provincial councils that really harmed us."
Al-Obeidi said the decision to establish an elite force within the Mahdi Army was taken because al-Sadr believes the U.S. will eventually win Iraqi approval of a new security agreement enabling American soldiers to stay in the country after the U.N. mandate expires.
Al-Maliki said last week that talks on the agreement were deadlocked because U.S. proposals infringe on Iraqi sovereignty. But the Sadrists believe Iraq will eventually sign an agreement and that "resistance" against the "U.S. occupation" must continue.
The strategy shift is occurring as the Sadrists face increasing pressure from al-Maliki, who has vowed to restore government control over areas where Shiite militias have wielded power for years.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched major offensives this spring against extremists in the southern city of Basra and in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army stronghold in Baghdad, and have been solidifying their hold on both areas since cease-fires ended heavy fighting.
Iraqi forces are now preparing for a major security operation in Amarah, an al-Sadr stronghold 200 miles southeast of Baghdad and the purported center of weapons smuggling from Iran to Shiite extremists in Iraq.
Iraqi police and soldiers have deployed in large numbers on the streets of Amarah, capital of Maysan province, and new checkpoints were erected in the city of some 450,000 people.
As reinforcements move into the city, al-Maliki's office announced a Wednesday deadline for people in Amarah to turn in heavy and medium range weapons to authorities in return for an unspecified monetary reward.
A statement said the announcement was the "last chance for the outlaws to reconsider their stance and to participate in the security process and reconstruction of the province."
In Baghdad, the U.S. military said Sunday that Iraqi soldiers have found a large weapons cache including 90 rockets, Iranian mortar shells and an American unmanned drone in a feed warehouse in a mostly Shiite area of the capital.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover says the munitions included "signature weapons" of Iranian-backed Shiite militia factions that have been blamed for attacks against the U.S.-protected Green Zone and other targets.
Sporadic violence continued elsewhere in Iraq on Sunday, with a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing a soldier and a civilian walking near the site, said Lt. Col. Khalil al-Zubaie, an army spokesman in the area. Three other soldiers were wounded, he said.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, gunmen killed a college professor and wounded two of his sons in a drive-by shooting in Mosul, according to a police officer who read the report at the provincial headquarters.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said Dr. Waleed Saadallah al-Mullah was a science professor at Mosul University.
Gunmen also broke into the home of a displaced Sunni family in Baghdad's mainly Sunni Adil district, killing a retired army officer, his wife and their 19-year-old daughter and wounding their 10-year-old son, police and hospital officials said.
The officials, who declined to be identified because they weren't authorized to release the information, said the family had fled sectarian violence in the mainly Shiite district of Amin last year and the father had been working as a car dealer. They said the motive for the killings was unknown.