In Iraq, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his militia off the streets in an effort to press the government for an end to the military offensive that has rocked Basra and other Sadr strongholds since Tuesday. The government has welcomed the move. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he was ordering his militia, the Mahdi Army, to stop fighting and cooperate with government security efforts. In exchange, he asked the government to release Mahdi Army prisoners and declare an amnesty.
Sadr spokesman Hazem al-Aaraji read a statement on behalf of the cleric, saying he was ordering an end to the fighting in order to stop Iraqi bloodshed. He said he was ordering complete cooperation with the government to restore security and bring those who committed crime to justice.
He said anyone who continues carrying weapons or targeting the government will not be part of the Sadrist movement.
He said the Iraqi government must guarantee that if his order to stop fighting was implemented, it would in turn stop the raids and arrests of militia members.
After the cleric's order went out, fighting appeared to have slacked off in some areas, including the Baghdad district of Sadr City.
The Iraqi government has welcomed Sadr's move. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki issued a statement calling it a step in the right direction.
He repeated his declaration that the operation did not target the mainstream Sadrist movement, but only renegade elements refusing to abide by Sadr's ceasefire, which has been in place since August.
The ceasefire is seen as having a significant role in the reduction of violence in Iraq. The unrest in Basra threatened to undermine the fragile progress toward stability that the country has made during the past year.
On Saturday, Mr. Maliki acknowledged that he was caught off guard by the strength of the resistance to the military offensive. He originally gave the militants until Friday to turn in their weapons, but then extended the deadline for 10 days while the two sides negotiated in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.
Sadr's spokesman said the fighters would not be turning in their guns.
Fierce fighting erupted Tuesday after the government began cracking down on armed groups in districts of Basra, and it quickly spread to other areas. Most of the raids have focused on Mahdi Army strongholds.
Repeated barrages of mortar and rocket fire have also slammed into the heavily fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound. Iraqi authorities say a citywide curfew in Baghdad is to be lifted early Monday.