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Iraq: Al-Sadr Calls For Cease-Fire After Fierce Fighting

Shi'ite fighters take a combat position on a street in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City (AFP) Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on his followers to stop battling government forces in Iraq. The apparent cease-fire bid comes after days of fierce fighting in the southern city of Al-Basrah, the capital, Baghdad, and elsewhere as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed to rid the country of what he calls criminal gangs.

In a written statement, al-Sadr called for an end to fighting in Al-Basrah and all other provinces in an effort to stop the bloodshed. The statement, issued from al-Sadr's office in Al-Najaf, says anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions "will not be one of us."

Al-Sadr is also offering to pull his fighters off the streets of Al-Basrah and other cities if the government stops what he calls "illegal and haphazard raids" against his followers and releases prisoners held without charge.

In a first reaction, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh welcomed al-Sadr's words as "positive."

Al-Sadr's declaration follows six days of fighting between Shi’ite fighters and Iraqi and U.S. troops in Al-Basrah, other towns in the south, and Baghdad. The fighting erupted after al-Maliki launched an assault on militias in Al-Basrah on March 25.

Scores Killed

Estimates of the number of deaths have varied since the fighting broke out. Government troops say they have killed at least 120 "enemy" fighters in Al-Basrah, while local medical sources report as many as 290 dead.

Scores of people have been reported killed in other towns in the south, including Al-Kut, Al-Nasiriyah, Karbala, and Al-Hillah. The head of Baghdad's health directorate, Ali Bustan, said more than 130 bodies have arrived at hospitals in the east of the capital since March 25.

Al-Sadr movement member Fatah al-Shaykh accused Iraqi government forces and the U.S. military of using jets and helicopters in arbitrarily bombing residential buildings in Al-Sadr City late on March 29. Al-Shaykh also said it appeared al-Maliki has become caught up in the "hysteria."

Meanwhile, Baghdad was locked down for the third straight day today after a weekend curfew was extended indefinitely to contain the clashes. The Iraqi prime minister has extended his original three-day ultimatum to lay down arms, telling fighters they now have until April 8 to hand in their weapons in return for cash.

The military command in Baghdad imposed the curfew covering pedestrians and vehicles late on March 27 after fierce clashes broke out between Shi’ite fighters and Iraqi and U.S. troops. The fighting erupted mainly in the Shi’ite-dominated Al-Sadr City area in the east of the capital after Prime Minister al-Maliki launched an assault on militias in Al-Basrah on March 25.

U.S. warplanes have carried out air strikes in Al-Basrah, while British forces have fired artillery rounds on what they say were the militia's mortar positions.

'Worse Than Al-Qaeda'

On March 30, the prime minister vowed that government troops would not leave Al-Basrah until "security is restored," describing the gunmen as "worse than Al-Qaeda.”

"We used to talk about Al-Qaeda," al-Maliki said. "Unfortunately, it seems there are some among us who are worse than Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda kills the innocent. Al-Qaeda destroys buildings, and [the militias] are doing the same. Al-Qaeda wants to foil the political process, and [the militias] want to do the same thing."

Al-Sadr's followers have in the past rebelled against the U.S.-backed government, although the cleric's political bloc has backed al-Maliki's ruling coalition.

A cease-fire by the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, in place since August 2007 and renewed in February, has been widely credited with reducing sectarian tensions and contributing to the recent overall drop in violence.

The fighting is blamed on a power struggle between rival Shi’ite factions ahead of provincial elections scheduled for October. The vote is seen as key to improving trust between Iraq's religious and ethnic groups that are fighting for influence in the country.