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Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announces another 6-month cease-fire for his militia
IRAQ AL SADR BAG112 5052450
Iraqis hold Muqtada al-Sadr's portrait in the city of Kufa, Iraq, after prayers Friday, Feb. 22, 2008. Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced Friday that he has extended a cease-fire order to his Shiite Mahdi Army by another six months, giving Iraq a chance to continue its fragile recovery from brutal sectarian violence. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced Friday that he has extended a cease-fire order to his Shiite militia for another six months, giving Iraq a chance to continue its fragile recovery from brutal sectarian violence.
    His message was delivered by Shiite clerics during prayer services in mosques dominated by followers of the black-turbaned cleric.
    ‘‘According to an order by Sayyid Muqtada, activities of the Mahdi Army will be suspended ... for another six-month period,’’ al-Sadr aide Hazim al-Aaraji said, using an honorific for al-Sadr during his sermon at the Kazimiyah mosque in Baghdad.
    Al-Sadr’s decision to halt the activities of his powerful militia for up to six months last August was one of three critical steps widely credited with bringing the Iraqi death toll down more than 60 percent in recent months.
    The other pieces of the puzzle are U.S. troop reinforcements and the move by American-backed Sunni Arab fighters to switch allegiances and start working against al-Qaida in Iraq.
    Al-Sadr has said he needs time to reorganize his militia and the announcement was widely seen as a bid to bolster his image as a major player in Iraqi politics as Shiite leaders jockey for power ahead of an anticipated U.S. withdrawal.
    Sheik Sadiq al-Essawi read the instructions in the Mahdi Army’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City after opening the envelope that was sent to Sadrist clerics Thursday.
    Al-Sadr said the freeze was extended until the ‘‘15th of Shaban,’’ a reference to the Islamic month before Ramadan, which would mean mid-August.
    The U.S. military said the decision would allow American and Iraqi troops to focus ‘‘more intensively’’ on the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq.
    ‘‘This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honor to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens,’’ the military said in a statement. ‘‘It will also foster a better opportunity for national reconciliation.’’
    The military command added that it was open to dialogue with the Sadrists and promised to treat members of the militia who honor the pledge ‘‘with respect and restraint’’ while cracking down on ‘‘criminals who violate the law and dishonor the commitment made by al-Sayyid Muqtada.’’
    American troops have continued to raid Shiite groups alleged to be supported and trained by Iran and splintered off from al-Sadr’s militia. That has angered some followers of al-Sadr, who also are frustrated with the Iraqi government, and they had argued an end to the cease-fire.
    According to an Associated Press count, at least 609 Iraqi civilians and members of security forces died in Iraq last month, compared to 1,920 killed in January 2007.
    Al-Sadr issued his order to his fighters to stand down on Aug. 29, days after deadly clashes in the holy city of Karbala between the Mahdi Army and the rival Badr militia of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country’s largest Shiite party and a U.S. partner.
    Involvement in fighting among Shiites was chipping away at the young cleric’s reputation as an uncompromising nationalist leader seeking to restore Iraq’s full sovereignty and undermining his bid to become a national leader.
    Aides at the time said the cease-fire was designed to stop a Shiite rift from spiraling out of control and to weed out infiltrators in his militia’s ranks.
    Violence continued Friday as police reported at least 12 people were killed in four bombings.
    The deadliest of the bombings was a suicide attack that killed four people as worshippers left a Sunni mosque at the end of Friday prayers in the Anbar province city of Amiriyah, west of the capital.
    A bomb hidden under a horse-drawn cart exploded in downtown Baghdad, killing three civilians and prompting a ban on carts in the capital.
    Hours later, an explosive-laden car blew up in a parking lot in the predominantly Shiite area of Karradah in central Baghdad, killing a man and two teenage boys and wounding seven people, police said.   A booby-trapped car being towed by police blew up in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, killing two policemen and wounding four others, police said.
    The U.S. military said Iraqi soldiers discovered two mass graves Thursday in the area around Baqouba, the capital of the volatile Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. One held the bodies of 15 men, including an Iraqi soldier identified by his army ID card. The bodies of six men and three women were found in the other.
    Following Friday’s services in Sadr City, thousands of worshippers rallied outside against the republication by Danish newspapers of a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad — one of 12 cartoons that sparked major protests in Muslim countries in 2006. Protesters also took to the streets in the Shiite holy cities of Kufa and Najaf.
    Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favorable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.
    The protesters laid U.S., Danish and Israeli flags on the ground and walked over them.
    Al-Essawi, the Sadrist cleric, demanded that the Iraqi government break off relations with Denmark.
    ‘‘The dirty hands have turned again to assault our great Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, by their cartoon drawings, they did it again because there is no one to deter them,’’ al-Essawi said in a statement.
    Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.

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