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Sadr Urges Followers to Halt Fighting

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Sadr Urges Followers to Halt Fighting

Iraq

Sadr Urges Followers to Halt Fighting

Sadr Urges Followers to Halt Fighting

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Rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr calls on his armed followers to put down their weapons and stop battling government forces. But despite the appeal, fighting continues in Basra and the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Iraq today Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr released a statement calling on his armed followers to put down their weapons and stop fighting government forces. This is a new development in the ongoing violence between rival Shiite forces in Iraq. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Baghdad.

First, tell us more about Moqtada al-Sadr's statement.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's come, as you can imagine, as a big surprise here. The statement that was distributed in Najaf to press people there said that, first of all, he had made this decision to stop Iraqi blood being shed, to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people.

He said we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces. And (unintelligible), he said, anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us. So he is disavowing people who are fighting in this name.

Now, the reaction, as far as we can tell so far is that fighting continues in Basra and in Sadr City. We are hearing that as Mahdi Army members there in Sadr City and that Shiite slum in Baghdad heard this announcement, they started changing that Moqtada al-Sadr was no longer a soldier and that they would continue to fight. The question here, Liane, really is how much control does al-Sadr have over his forces, will they follow him in this because they have been fighting all over this country and have been doing very well.

HANSEN: There's more U.S. involvement in the fighting that's been continuing. Tell us about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, the U.S. military has confirmed for the first time the use of ground forces in Basra in an escalation of their involvement there. A team of American Special Forces joined the battle working with Iraqi troops. Twenty-two militants were killed, the military announced.

It's another sign that the fight was not going well for the Iraqi forces. We've been hearing this for the past six days since this all began. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters remained in control of many Basra streets as of last night. They have their own checkpoints in many areas and are heavily armed.

We also just had reports this morning that militiamen in Basra stormed a state TV facility in Basra. The Iraqi military guards surrounding the building had to flee and Mahdi Army fighters set the armored vehicles on fire.

HANSEN: You were out on the streets of Baghdad. What's going on? What are people telling you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's been very difficult here in Baghdad. This is day three of a curfew here and it's extremely quiet. Everyone is staying indoors, only going out on foot to get supplies. No cars on the streets at all. There was heavy fighting in certain areas in Baghdad overnight. And so people are really finding the curfew here extremely trying.

People had really felt that the security situation had improved in Baghdad. And when I went to talk to people today, they expressed a real weariness. They felt that the situation had reverted again to chaos and they really just sounded really frustrated and extremely tired.

HANSEN: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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