Cleric pulls back militia to avoid clash

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The Independent Online

The radical Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr yesterday pulled his militiamen out of police stations they had seized in three cities in Iraq, as part of an attempt to ease the stand-off with the US in the south.

The black-clad gunmen from Mr Sadr's so-called al-Mahdi army withdrew from the police stations in Najaf, Karbala and Kufa yesterday in a sign that Mr Sadr does not want to fight to a finish.

Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of US ground forces in Iraq, had said their mission was "to kill or capture Sadr". But the US-led forces are nervous about fighting their way into the holy city of Najaf, a place revered by the world's 130 million Shia Muslims.

Mr Sadr's followers rejected a demand for the dissolution of the militia, which launched a bloody uprising in Baghdad and the south this month, attacking American and allied troops. Murtada al-Janabi, a lawyer who represented Mr Sadr in the talks, said: "Al-Sadr issued instructions for his followers to leave the sites of police and the government." But he said they called the demand to dissolve the militia "ridiculous".