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Muqtada al-Sadr called on his Mehdi Army militia to stop fighting Iraqi government forces in a surprise move after six days of clashes. The Shia cleric also demanded that the government cease arresting his followers and release those detained.
"Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed, we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces," said a statement from Mr Sadr’s office in Najaf.
The government is said by the Sadrists to have agreed to stop random arrests and allow the Mehdi Army to keep its weapons.
The Sadrists’ ceasefire was unexpected since they have prevented government forces from advancing in Basra and Baghdad. Hours before the announcement, militiamen stormed the state television station in Basra, forcing the guards to flee and setting armoured vehicles on fire.
A government spokesman said the statementby Mr Sadr was "positive and responsible" and claimed that the operation to overcome the militias in Basra would continue. The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had earlier pledged "a decisive and final battle" against militias, though the only one targeted was the Mehdi Army. Yet last night, fighting continued in Basra. And seven people were killed when a mortar struck a residential district in Baghdad’s Karradah district and witnesses reported clashes in the Shula area in a northern section of the capital.
The government’s plan to win control of Basra may now be abandoned, after more than 300 deaths. Its authority was further damaged when soldiers were shown on television handing over their weapons to the Mehdi Army.
Many Iraqi politicians are convinced Mr Maliki’s sudden and ill-prepared attack on Basra was an attempt to crush the Mehdi Army before October’s provincial elections, in which he fears defeat for him and his main ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The ISCI may also have wanted to force the Mehdi Army into a direct confrontation with US forces, something that Mr Sadr has long sought to avoid. The resistance of his militiamen was drawing in the Americans as US helicopters and planes attacked Mehdi Army positions.
Followers of Mr Sadr handed out sweets as a symbol of victory in his main stronghold of Sadr City, though hours later, rockets were still being fired towards the government and American headquarters in the Green Zone. The US military was shocked at the speed with which the crisis span out of control. Boasts about the ability of the Iraqi army to cope on its own are demonstrably untrue.
Prior to Mr Sadr’s statement, Baghdad was under a curfew, which was expected to be lifted today.
In Basra, a mortar bomb fired by the Mehdi Army hit the palace housing the Iraqi military operations centres, killing one of Mr Maliki’s top military advisers.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.