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Iraqi cleric urges his militia to uphold cease-fire

Times Staff Writer

Radical cleric Muqtada Sadr reminded his followers Friday to observe a truce that has been nearing collapse, pulling back from a showdown against fellow Shiite Muslims in the government.

In a statement read in mosques during Friday prayers, Sadr said his recent threat of “open war” was aimed only at U.S.-led forces and he urged his followers not to fight Iraqi troops. He also urged the Iraqi police and army “to be close to their people and far from the occupier, because we will not be blessed with peace as long as they occupy our land.”

The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported the death of a soldier Thursday in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad. At least 4,052 U.S. personnel have died since the Iraq war began, according to icasualties.org.

U.S. officials credit a unilateral cease-fire declared by Sadr in August with helping to tamp down violence and are counting on the truce to help secure the gains as most of the additional American forces deployed to Iraq last year pull out by July.

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But members of Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia have clashed daily with U.S. and Iraqi troops since the country’s Shiite-led government launched a crackdown in the southern oil hub of Basra a month ago. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting. Some of Sadr’s fighters had hoped that he would rescind the cease-fire Friday.

U.S. soldiers killed 10 suspected militants overnight in helicopter strikes and ground clashes in northeast Baghdad, in the area of the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, the military said.

Hospital officials in Sadr City said they received the bodies of at least seven civilians killed in the clashes and treated 45 wounded. The Iraqi Interior Ministry, which oversees police, put the toll at 11 killed and 36 injured.

Two more civilians died and seven were injured in U.S. airstrikes in Husseiniya, a Mahdi Army stronghold 20 miles north of Baghdad, a ministry official said.

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The U.S. military says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and blames the militants for fighting in heavily populated areas. Sadr’s statement Friday included an instruction to “not utilize urban areas in our anti-occupation activities.”

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, has demanded that the Mahdi Army hand over its weapons and has threatened to bar Sadr’s followers from participating in Oct. 1 provincial elections if the cleric does not disband his militia.

Sadr’s followers complain that they are being unfairly singled out while Maliki’s allies in other Shiite political organizations are allowed to maintain armed wings. Despite bellicose statements by both sides, neither the government nor Sadr appears to want an all-out conflict, which would cost them militarily and could lose them popular support.

Last week, the cleric, who led two major uprisings in 2004, issued a “last warning” threatening “open war until liberation” if there is no end to the crackdown against his movement. But on Friday he said, “We meant a war against the occupiers.”

Although Sadr’s followers continue to put up fierce resistance in and around Sadr City, Iraqi security forces have been able to enter former Mahdi strongholds in Basra without major incident since the cleric ordered his fighters off the streets at the end of last month. But there were signs Friday that the militiamen have not been defeated in the south.

Witnesses afraid to give their names said a grenade was tossed into a wedding party, killing a child and injuring more than 20 people. They believed that the celebration was targeted because of the presence of a band, which Shiite extremists consider sacrilegious.

Also Friday, a journalist working for a television station linked to the Sadr movement’s main Shiite political rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, was killed in a drive-by shooting north of Basra. Police said Jassim Batat was gunned down as he left his home in Qurnah for work.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.


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