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Cease-Fire Deal Reached, Sadr Militia Announces

Times Staff Writer

Followers of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr said they reached a cease-fire agreement Saturday with the interim Iraqi government, but a government spokesman said the only proof of a deal would be if the rebels started handing over their weapons Monday.

A cease-fire would be a breakthrough in the government’s redoubled efforts to pacify insurgent strongholds ahead of national elections scheduled for January.

Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia has fought U.S.-led forces for weeks in Sadr City, a sprawling section of northeastern Baghdad that is home to about 2 million people, mainly impoverished Shiites. As the fighting has intensified, American warplanes have conducted almost nightly airstrikes there.

The pounding is thought to have taken a heavy toll on Sadr’s militia, forcing the talks with the Iraqi government.

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The fighters also appear to be under pressure from fellow Sadr City residents who, despite sympathy with the home-grown insurgency, are tired of a conflict that has caused civilian casualties and massive property damage and has kept children from school.

Previous deals with Sadr’s followers have fallen apart at the last moment, including several times during the long siege of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf two months ago. That may account for the government’s cautious approach Saturday.

“There is no formal cease-fire,” Sabah Kadhim, a senior advisor in the Interior Ministry, said in an interview Saturday night. “The understanding is that they will give up their arms. If they do as they say on Monday, all well and good. If not, force will have to be used.”

Kadhim confirmed some elements of the “deal” announced by Sadr representatives. They include a halt to U.S. airstrikes, the release of certain rebel prisoners and a cessation of efforts to arrest others in return for the surrender of weapons.

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Several spots around Sadr City have been designated as drop-off sites for weapons, Kadhim said. Citizens who suffered injuries or property damage would be able to apply for compensation, he said.

Rear Adm. Greg Slavonic, a U.S. military spokesman, said that there would be no change in position “until we really have something concrete.” If troops were attacked, they would continue to respond with airstrikes, officials said.

In Sadr City on Saturday night, loudspeakers at various mosques were announcing word of an agreement and exhorting Al Mahdi militiamen to lay down their weapons. The mood, witnesses said, was joyful at the prospect of an end to the fighting.

The U.S. has stepped up anti-insurgent efforts in a bid to curb violence before elections scheduled for January.

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On Oct. 1, U.S. and Iraqi security forces stormed 5,000-strong into Samarra, bringing the rebel-held city back under government control. It was thought to be first of several such offensives, aimed at sweeping out insurgents and establishing adequate security for the elections.

A U.S. and Iraqi force of 3,000 on Tuesday pushed south from Baghdad into the Sunni Muslim town of Latifiya and surrounding parts of Babil province, which have been the sites of recent violence.

As a result of the offensive led by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 59 suspected insurgents have been captured and a key bridge over the Euphrates River has been secured, according to a statement Saturday.

Also Saturday, in Iskandariya, south of Latifiya, insurgents carrying rocket-propelled-grenade launchers destroyed the city council building in a midafternoon attack. No casualties were reported.

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A special correspondent in Sadr City contributed to this report.


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