BAGHDAD (AP) — An influential Iraqi Shiite cleric on Monday urged his fighters to hand state-issued weapons back to the government, following Iraq's declaration of victory against the Islamic State group.
In a speech broadcast on Iraqi television, Muqtada al-Sadr also called on his forces to hand over some territory to other branches of Iraq's security forces, but said his men would continue to guard a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Al-Sadr commands one of several mostly Shiite militias that mobilized after IS militants swept across northern and central Iraq in the summer of 2014. The paramilitaries are state-sanctioned and officially under the command of the prime minister, but have their own chains of command.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over IS in a national address on Saturday, after Iraqi forces drove the militants from their last strongholds in the western desert.
Al-Sadr, the scion of a revered Shiite clerical family, commanded a powerful militia that battled U.S. troops in the years after the 2003 invasion. His fighters are today known as the Peace Brigades, and are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the official name of the mostly Shiite militias allied with the government.
During his address Monday, al-Sadr warned members of the paramilitary forces against participating in elections scheduled for May.
Tens of thousands of Popular Mobilization Forces are deployed across the country. Many are viewed with suspicion by some of Iraq's minority Sunnis and Kurds.
The paramilitaries clashed with Kurdish fighters in October when federal forces retook disputed territories in northern Iraq that the Kurds had captured from IS.