BAGHDAD — The leader of the Mahdi Army militia on Sunday asked his fighters to stop their armed operations throughout Iraq and called on the government to stop arresting his followers and declare a general amnesty for those already in detention.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr issued the statement on the sixth day of a government offensive that had been intended to dislodge his supporters from their strongholds in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, but instead turned into a pitched battle in Baghdad and elsewhere in which the Mahdi Army proved a match for the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
In his statement, Sadr said he was ordering his followers to "call off all armed operations in in Basra and all the provinces" in an effort to preserve "the unity" of the Iraqi people.
The statement would allow Sadr to claim the role of peacemaker, though its practical impact was unclear. A Mahdi Army commander in Basra said his men would continue to defend themselves in the face of government attacks.
“We will stay in our positions because the government didn’t stop the raids and the attacks against the Mahdi Army and their areas,” Abu Muamal said. “We are waiting for clear orders from our command and we will not withdraw until the situation is clarified.”
Meanwhile, fighting continued, claiming the life of a key Maliki security adviser, Saleem Qassim al Taee, who was also known as Abu Laith Al-Kadhimi. A statement from Maliki's office said he was killed in Basra "by a treacherous shell . . . launched by criminal hands that are stained by crime and killing.”
Mortar and rocket fire continued to rain down on the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where American officials were ordered to stay inside hardened buildings.
The Ministry of Interior said at least 117 people had died in Baghdad in six days of fighting. More than 300 people have been killed across the country.
Sadr's statement Sunday came after militiamen reportedly had driven government forces from a television station in Basra.