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Shi'ite Cleric Extends Cease-Fire with US, Iraqi Forces

Iraqi radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has extended for another six months a cease-fire between his Mahdi army militia and U.S. and Iraqi forces. Daniel Schearf reports from the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.

Clerics loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr announced the extended truce between his Mahdi army militia and U.S. and Iraqi forces during Friday prayers.

Iraqi government and U.S. military officials immediately welcomed the move, saying the initial six-month truce helped to sharply reduce attacks on Iraqi and U.S. troops, as well as diminish sectarian violence in Iraq.

In a press release Friday the Multi-National Force in Iraq said the extension would foster national reconciliation and allow coalition and Iraqi security forces to focus on combating al-Qaida terrorists.

The press release said those who continue to honor al-Sadr's pledge would be treated with respect and restraint, but warned security forces would continue to crack down on criminals who violate the law and dishonor the cease-fire.

On Thursday hundreds of Mahdi militiamen marched through the al-Sadr controlled neighborhood of Baghdad known as Sadr City. The parade marked the fourth anniversary of the Shi'ite uprising against U.S.-led security and honored those militiamen killed by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.

Al-Sadr spokesman Sheik Jamal al-Sudani addressed the rally. And despite the defiant tone of the marchers, he made it clear they would not renew fighting.

"We have to think of another way to martyrdom, this time not by attack or assassination but by a doctrinal stand," he said. "We have to break the thorn of enemies by our millions of prayers in yards and mosques."

Even though the cease-fire has contributed to a sharp decline in attacks across Iraq, there has been a debate among al-Sadr supporters on whether the cease-fire should be extended. Many of them say U.S. and Iraqi troops have used the truce to arrest al-Sadr supporters in southern Iraq, where Shi'ite militias are competing for influence.

Al-Sadr's militia is one of the most powerful in Iraq and a call for renewed fighting could jeopardize recent improvements in security.