al-Sadr pulls fighters off Iraq streets

(AP) - Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Sunday that he was pulling his fighters off the streets nationwide and called on the government to stop raids against his followers and free them from prison.

The Iraqi government quickly welcomed al-Sadr's apparent move to resolve a widening conflict with his movement, sparked Tuesday by operations against his backers in the oil-rich southern city of Basra.

Al-Sadr's nine-point statement was issued by his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf and broadcast through loudspeakers on Shiite mosques. It said the first point was: "taking gunmen off the streets in Basra and elsewhere."

He also demanded that the Iraqi government stop "haphazard raids" and release security detainees who haven't been charged, two issues cited by his movement as reasons for fighting the government.

Followers handed out sweets in Baghdad's main Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called the statement "positive and responsible." But he also warned in a telephone interview broadcast on Iraqi state TV. that security forces would continue to target those who don't follow the order.

"We expect a wide response to this call," he said. "After this announcement, anybody who targets the government and its institutions will be regarded ... as outlaws."

Scattered firing could be heard in central Baghdad hours after al-Sadr's statement was released, and rockets or mortars were fired toward the U.S.-protected Green Zone.

At least seven Iraqis were killed and 21 wounded when two rounds apparently fell short, striking houses in the commercial district of Karradah, police said.

A U.S. public address system in the Green Zone warned people to "duck and cover" and to stay away from windows.

Iraqi security forces have been facing fierce resistance to their crackdown on militia violence in the southern city of Basra.

Dozens of Shiite gunmen stormed a state TV facility in central Basra before al-Sadr's declaration Sunday, forcing Iraqi troops guarding the building to flee and setting armored vehicles on fire.

One of al-Maliki's top security officials was killed in a mortar attack against the palace that houses the military operations center, officials said.

The prime minister's Dawa party issued a statement of condolences identifying the slain official as Salim Qassim, known by his nickname Abu Laith al-Kadhimi.

The strength of the resistance to the week-old offensive has taken the U.S.-backed government by surprise, forcing it to come up with a new tactical plan targeting several Mahdi Army strongholds, a government official said.

The official, who was in Basra but spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also had brought in reinforcements and appealed to local tribal leaders to help secure the area.

The prime minister, himself a Shiite, has called the fight "a decisive and final battle" and vowed to remain in Basra until government forces wrest control from militias, including the Mahdi Army that is loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But al-Maliki also acknowledged Saturday that he may have miscalculated by failing to foresee the strong backlash the offensive would provoke in Baghdad and other cities where Shiite militias wield power.

Hundreds of militants, soldiers and civilians have been killed as fighting spread to Baghdad neighborhoods and other southern cities.

Several clashes have involved U.S. forces and the U.S. military launched airstrikes in Basra. The military said 16 enemy fighters were killed in when an AC-130 gunship strafed heavily armed militants attacking Iraqi troops during clashes on Saturday.

U.S. and Iraqi troops also repelled an attack against American special forces Saturday in Suwayrah, a Shiite militia stronghold 25 miles south of Baghdad, killing 13 enemy fighters, the military said in a statement.

Iraqi police said three militants were killed and 21 detained when clashes resumed there on Sunday.

In other violence, a suicide car bomber killed five U.S.-backed Sunni fighters and wounded eight other people near the oil hub of Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad.

Gunmen also killed five policemen in Duluiyah, a Sunni-dominated area 45 miles north of Baghdad.

The U.S. military said separately that American and Iraqi troops unearthed 14 badly decomposed bodies in a mass grave on Saturday in Muqdadiyah, northeast of Baghdad. It was the second such find since Thursday, when 37 bodies were found.

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