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Radical Iraqi Cleric Calls for Nationwide Cease-Fire  - 2004-08-30

A radical Iraqi cleric who has led much of the resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq has called for a nationwide cease-fire. An aide to Moqtada al-Sadr says the cleric will also join the political process in the coming days. An aide to Moqtada al-Sadr says the cleric's call to stop all confrontations with U.S. and Iraqi government forces demonstrates that he wants stability and security across the country. Aides also said that Mr. al-Sadr would enter his movement into Iraq's political process, but they gave no details of the plan. The announcement followed discussions between Mr. al-Sadr, Iraqi government officials and coalition commanders to stop fighting across Iraq following the end of clashes in the holy city of Najaf and nearby Kufa last week. Mr. al-Sadr's forces, called the Mahdi Army had been holed up for three weeks in one of Shia Islam's most sacred sites - the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Intense fighting near the shrine was halted, and a counter-attack against the shrine itself was avoided when Iraq's most revered Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for the Mahdi Army to leave. Control of the shrine and the mosque in Kufa was given to Iraqi security forces. Senior U.S. diplomatic and military sources call that outcome a tactical victory for the Iraqi government, because of what they describe as Ayatollah al-Sistani's tacit endorsement of the authority of the Iraqi government. But critics continue to charge that the violence will continue as long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq. "The problem is not with al-Sadr, not with Najaf, the problem is with the whole people of Iraq - with the whole community," said Nabeal Younis, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "The whole people here want American troops to leave as soon as possible, or at least they give them a schedule for their withdrawal from the country - at least." The Iraqi government has cautiously welcomed Mr. al-Sadr's announcement. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has consistently called for Mr. al-Sadr to turn the Mahdi Army into a political movement. Until now, Mr. al-Sadr had resisted.