BAGHDAD In a dramatic reversal, Iraq's prime minister ordered a nationwide freeze Friday on Iraqi raids against Shiite militants, bowing to demands by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr only one day after promising to expand the crackdown to Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued the order after al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia fought government troops last week in Basra and elsewhere, hinted at retaliation if Iraqi security forces continue to arrest his followers.
A statement by al-Maliki's office, broadcast on government television, did not mention the Mahdi Army by name or give a timeframe for the freeze. It said the move was designed to give a "chance to those who repented and want to lay down their arms."
But the statement was issued less than 24 hours after al-Maliki told reporters he intended to launch security operations against Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad, including Sadr City, home to some 2.5 million Shiites and the militia's largest base.
"It is not possible to look for only a military solution. There must be a political solution and that's why the prime minister issued today's statement," a top al-Maliki adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, told The Associated Press.< "We must have calm. Many politicians advised al-Maliki against confrontation, warning him that clashes benefited other parties," al-Rikabi said without elaborating. In his Friday statement, al-Maliki said that extremists "who lay down their arms and participated in the recent acts of violence" would not be prosecuted.
American military officials did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker had praised al-Maliki for his decision to strike at Shiite militias last week in Basra, even as he acknowledged that the operation ran into "a boatload of problems."
The clashes quickly spread throughout the Shiite south and to Baghdad, where Shiite militiamen pounded the U.S.-controlled Green Zone with rockets and mortar fire, killing at least two Americans.
Major fighting eased Sunday after al-Sadr ordered his men off the street under a deal brokered in Iran a move which appeared to undermine al-Maliki, who had taken personal command of the Basra operation.
In Amman, Jordan, David Shearer, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said an estimated 700 people were killed and more than 1,500 were wounded in fighting that erupted after the Basra crackdown. He said the figures could rise "as facts and the numbers become more clear."
U.S. and Iraqi authorities had insisted the Basra operation was not aimed at al-Sadr's powerful political movement but instead at ridding the streets of criminals and gunmen who had effectively ruled the city since 2005. But al-Sadr's supporters believed the crackdown was aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall. Al-Sadr expects to score major electoral gains against Shiite parties that work with the Americans.
A member of al-Sadr's 30-member bloc in parliament, Hassan al-Rubaie, told the AP that the decision to freeze arrests was made during talks Thursday between Sadrist representatives and al-Maliki aides.
Al-Rubaie said the freeze applied even in cases where an arrest warrant had been issued. He said negotiations were under way on other Sadrist demands, including the release of al-Sadr's followers detained without charge, reinstating soldiers and police who deserted during last week's fighting and the lifting of the siege of Sadr City and another Shiite neighborhood.
In his latest statement, al-Maliki also said families forced to flee their homes because of the latest fighting should be allowed to return home and that cash donations would be offered to the families of those killed or wounded in the violence.
He said Iraqis whose property has been damaged in the fighting also would be compensated.
In Basra, military and police officials said about 900 Iraqi soldiers and police deserted or refused to fight the militias after the offensive was launched March 25.
The officials said the mutiny involved an army battalion from the 4th Iraqi Division numbering about 500 men as well as about 400 policemen.
Deserters said they did not want to fight fellow Shiites and turned over weapons and vehicles to the Mahdi Army, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Iraqi officials have acknowledged desertions but described the numbers as insignificant.
However, the desertions cast new doubt on the effectiveness of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. The White House has conditioned further U.S. troop withdrawals on the readiness of the Iraqi military and police.
Despite a drop in fighting, Iraqi officials have insisted that the Basra crackdown will continue until it breaks the stronghold by armed groups.
It was unclear, however, whether the freeze order might affect the plan.
In a statement Friday, the U.S. military said Iraqi special forces had captured a suspected militant leader who has been rallying insurgents in Basra to fight against coalition forces.
The statement said the suspect was linked the kidnapping and murder of Iraqi security troopers and had been involved in oil smuggling "and foreign fighter networks."
Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman, said a roadside bomb targeted a British force "supporting an Iraqi-led operation at the very fringes of Basra." He said the British were "mentoring and monitoring" the Iraqi operation, but provided no further details.
Also Friday, a suicide bomber killed at least 15 people and wounded eight when he blew himself up during a policeman's funeral in Sadiyah, a town 60 miles north of Baghdad on Friday. Police said the bomber mingled among the mourners and then triggered an explosive vest.
And a roadside bombing killed four policemen and wounded one in Hillah, a mostly Shiite city about 60 miles south of Baghdad, a police spokesman said. t-->