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U.S. Military Praises Militia's Cease-Fire Extension

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Iraq today, the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced that his militia would remain under a ceasefire order for another six months. The Mahdi Army ceasefire is seen as a major contributor to the relative calm in Iraq these days. The U.S. military praised the ceasefire extension and said it would enhance the chances for national reconciliation in Iraq.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Baghdad.

PETER KENYON: The ceasefire Sadr declared in August was due to expire at midnight tomorrow, and anxiety had been rising all week as Sadr's office reported pressure from senior advisers to let lapse. They complained that Iraqi and U.S. forces were using the ceasefire to seize and imprison Shiite militiamen.

But at the Kufa Mosque not far from the holy city Najaf, where Moqtada al-Sadr used to preach, Sheikh Asad al-Nasri read Sadr's statement that the ceasefire will stay in effect until August, or under the Islamic calendar for 2008, the middle of the month of Sha'aban.

Sheikh ASAD AL-NASRI (Shiite Cleric): (Through translator) This is why I do extend the activity freeze of the Mahdi Army until the coming 15th of Sha'aban. Please accept my great appreciation and respect for your patience, your understanding, your jihad, and your obedience to the leader, Moqtada.

KENYON: The announcement drew swift praise from the Iraqi government and the U.S. military in Baghdad. The military called it an important commitment that could improve life for Iraqis and allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to concentrate on fighting al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents.

The military also alluded to splinter groups of Shiite militiamen who are not respecting the ceasefire saying, American and Iraqi forces would work to protect Iraqis from what it called, these criminals who violate the law and dishonor the commitment made by al-Sayed Moqtada. In addition to using the respectful al-Sayed title for Sadr, the Americans had been at pains to distinguish between Sadr and the regular Mahdi Army and so-called special groups still carrying out attacks.

Sadr's spokesman have made clear that they used the ceasefire to rid the militia of elements that may never have been loyal to Sadr in the first place.

Hussein Abu Ali(ph) who's Sadr representative in the Al-Amal area of Baghdad reported by telephone today that Mahdi Army members had joined with Iraqi army in a small-arms fight against renegade Shiite fighters who had been expelled from the Mahdi Army for their violent acts. He said the real Mahdi Army wants no part of the sectarian killings and intimidation that continue to plague the Amal neighborhood.

Mr. HUSSEIN ABU ALI (Sadr Representative): (Through translator) There are some bad elements within the Mahdi Army. Frankly speaking, we're fed up with them, so we decided to dismiss them from the army completely. We got these orders from high-level people in Najaf.

(Soundbite of passing vehicle)

KENYON: In Baghdad's Karata neighborhood, 30-year-old Kadul Hussein(ph) worked in his small convenience store and said, as a Shiite and as an Iraqi, he was glad to hear that the ceasefire was extended.

Mr. KADUL HUSSEIN (Store Owner): (Through translator) We heard about freezing the Mahdi Army activity for another six months. It's a good step and we bless it. And we congratulate Moqtada al-Sadr for this brave decision. We hope it's a step forward to support national reconciliation between the Iraqi people and to achieve stability in this country.

KENYON: Officials said Sadr's decision may buy more time for Iraq's political leaders to come together. And the U.S. said it was ready to include Moqtada al-Sadr in that dialogue. But some Iraqis see today's news as avoiding just one of many pitfalls scattered along the road ahead.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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