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Iraq's Sadr offers to give up fight if U.S. withdrawal date set

BAGHDAD — Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr has agreed to disband an elite fighting force within his militant movement if negotiations between the United States and Iraq set a firm timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, his top aide said Friday.

Sadr's move could give Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki a potent incentive to to press the United States for a specific withdrawal date. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has been responsible for much of the bloodshed in Iraq, and its transformation into an unarmed cultural, social and educational organization would improve security and enhance Maliki's reputation ahead of upcoming provincial elections.

Sadr announced in June that he was creating a separate wing of his organization to battle American forces, while the rest of it would be dedicated to social causes only.

Those cells will continue to operate until the Sadrists can examine the final security arrangements now being negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq, said Salah al Obaidi, a spokesman for Sadr.

"We’ll study the seriousness of that decision, and it depends on what this agreement brings us," he said. "Our reaction will depend on how serious the American decision is. When there is no more occupation, there will be no need for these cells."

Iraqi officials told McClatchy earlier this week that the negotiations on a security agreement are nearing a close and include a date for the withdrawal of American combat troops "by 2011."

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