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Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 15:21 UK

Iraq's Sadr extends militia truce

Supporters of Moqtada Sadr in Sadr city, Iraq, 21 August, 2008
Mr Sadr has not said whether his Mehdi Army will disarm

Iraq's influential Shia cleric, Moqtada Sadr, has indefinitely extended a ceasefire being observed by members of his Mehdi Army militia.

In a handwritten statement published on his website, the cleric said anyone who violated the order would not be considered part of the group.

He said the Mehdi Army would carry out unspecified cultural activities instead.

However, he did not say whether the 60,000-strong militia would disarm.

"The Mehdi Army suspension will be valid indefinitely and anyone who does not follow this order will not be considered a member of this group," said the statement.

The anti-American cleric, whose militia has been fighting against the presence of foreign troops in Iraq, also urged his followers to stage peaceful protests on the first Friday of Ramadan every year until US forces left.

Correspondents say the Mehdi Army was once arguably the most powerful Shia military and political movement in Iraq, but it has been seriously weakened after military operations against it.

The areas where Mr Sadr has strong support have recently been quiet, but the Mehdi Army has retained its weapons.

Earlier this month, Mr Sadr said only a select group of his followers would be permitted to carry weapons, but that even they would not do so until the long-term status of US troops in Iraq had been decided.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said a proposed agreement with the US would lead to the departure of foreign troops by the end of 2011.

Mr Sadr first called a ceasefire for six months in August last year. This was extended for another six months in February.





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