Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Shiite militia to extend a cease fire in Iraq for six more months.
"According to an order by Sayyid Muqtada, activities of the Mahdi army will be suspended. for another six-month period," al-Sadr aide Hazim al-Aaraji said.
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The surprise decision could give the government of Iraq more time to recover from sectarian violence and gain control of all of regions of the war-torn country.
Al-Sadr said the freeze was extended until the "15th of Shaban," a reference to the Islamic month before Ramadan, which would mean mid-August.
Al-Sadr's decision last summer to implement the cease fire is widely believed to have helped curb violence as well as bringing the Iraqi death toll down more than 60 percent.
According to an Associated Press count, at least 609 Iraqi civilians and members of security forces died in Iraq last month, compared to 1,920 killed in January 2007.
A Bid for More Power?
The announcement may also be a bid by the Muslim cleric to bolster his image as a major player in Iraqi politics. Shiite leaders have begun to jockey for power ahead of an anticipated U.S. withdrawal.
The United States welcomes the decision, but says military forces will not let up pressure on militant factions who have broken away from al-Sadr's army.
U.S. forces have continued operations against Shiite groups alleged to be supported and trained by Iran and splintered off from al-Sadr's militia. This has angered some followers of al-Sadr, who also are frustrated with the Iraqi government. They had argued for an end to the cease-fire.
The U.S. military said the decision would allow American and Iraqi troops to focus "more intensively" on the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"This extension of his August 2007 pledge of honor to halt attacks is an important commitment that can broadly contribute to further improvements in security for all Iraqi citizens," the military said in a statement. "It will also foster a better opportunity for national reconciliation."
The military command added that it was open to dialogue with the Sadrists and promised to treat members of the militia who honor the pledge "with respect and restraint.
The militarywill still crack down on "criminals who violate the law and dishonor the commitment made by al-Sayyid Muqtada."
Meanwhile, a new Turkish ground assault into Northern Iraq is threatening to undermine the peace there.
Turkey is targeting Kurdish rebels who have been stirring up violence in southeast Turkey.