By Andrew Gray
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will not be treated as an enemy of the United States if he plays a peaceful role in Iraqi politics, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.
Gates also insisted he and top U.S. military chiefs agreed with President George W. Bush's policy of indefinitely freezing troop reductions from Iraq starting this summer, despite some differences in their public comments.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been fighting intense battles with members of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia in recent weeks. But U.S. officials have described the fighters as rogue elements within the group, which is formally observing a cease-fire.
"Those who are prepared to work within the political process in Iraq, and peacefully, are not enemies of the United States," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.
Gates said he would be surprised if Sadr, widely believed to be in Iran, were arrested if he returned to Iraq.
"He is a significant political figure," Gates said. "We want him to work within the political process in Iraq. He has a large following. And I think it's important that he become a part of the process if he isn't already."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cracked down last month against Mehdi Army fighters in the southern city of Basra. The operation sparked fighting in both Basra and Baghdad's Shi'ite slum of Sadr City.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of supporting the so-called "special groups" of rogue Mehdi Army fighters. Iran has denied involvement, blaming Iraqi violence on the presence of U.S. troops.
Gates said he was not only on the "same page" as Bush on Iraq but also on the "same line (and) same word." He said the policy was "unanimously endorsed by our nation's top uniformed officers and civilian leaders, myself included."
While Bush and the top commander in Iraq, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, have avoided saying how long the freeze in troop cuts may last, Gates has said he hopes it will be brief.
Gates has used the term "pause" to describe the troop freeze, while Bush has said the term is misleading because it implies operations in Iraq will also be suspended.
Gates said on Friday he expects Petraeus to say whether he can recommend more reductions after an initial 45-day freeze, likely to begin at the end of July, when the United States will have withdrawn about 20,000 troops.
Petraeus had appeared to suggest a longer timeline, telling Congress this week he would start assessing whether more troops could be withdrawn only after the end of the 45-day period.
But he said on Friday he was already looking at prospects for withdrawals.
"There's every intention to continue that process of assessment during the 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation so that ... conditions permitting, there could be a recommendation right at the end of that period," he said.
"Or it could be that you again say we've got to wait a little bit longer," he told reporters at the Pentagon.
The United States now has some 160,000 troops in Iraq.
The differences in public comments provoked talk of a rift between the Pentagon, eager to reduce stress on U.S. ground forces and send more troops to Afghanistan, and Bush and Petraeus, focused on success in Iraq.
(Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Xavier Briand and Alan Elsner)