In a dramatic reversal, Iraq's prime minister ordered a nationwide freeze yesterday on Iraqi raids against Shiite militants, bowing to demands by anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr only one day after promising to expand the crackdown to Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued the order after al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia fought government troops last week in Basra and elsewhere, hinted at retaliation if Iraqi security forces continue to arrest his followers.
A statement by al-Maliki's office, broadcast on government television, did not mention the Mahdi Army by name or give a timeframe for the freeze. It said the move was designed to give a "chance to those who repented and want to lay down their arms."
But the statement was issued less than 24 hours after al-Maliki told reporters he intended to launch security operations against Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad, including Sadr City, home to some 2.5 million Shiites and the militia's largest base.
"It is not possible to look for only a military solution. There must be a political solution and that's why the prime minister issued today's statement," a top al-Maliki adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, told The Associated Press.
"We must have calm. Many politicians advised al-Maliki against confrontation, warning him that clashes benefited other parties," al-Rikabi said without elaborating.
In his Friday statement, al-Maliki said that extremists "who lay down their arms and participated in the recent acts of violence" would not be prosecuted.
US military officials did not respond to requests for comment on the statement.