BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers to stop fighting and to cooperate with Iraqi security forces Sunday, as U.S. and Iraqi forces targeted his Mehdi Army in Basra and Baghdad.
In exchange for brokering the cease-fire, al-Sadr demanded that the government give his supporters amnesty and release any of his followers that are being held.
The nine-point statement was issued by his headquarters in Najaf and came a day after al-Sadr told his fighters not to surrender their weapons.
“We announce our disavowal from anyone who carries weapons and targets government institutions, charities and political party offices,” said the Sunday statement that was distributed across the country and posted on Web sites linked to al-Sadr’s movement.
The government welcomes al-Sadr’s statement and views it as “positive and responsive,” spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
“A large number of people will listen to Muqtada al-Sadr’s call. Life will return to all of Iraq as before,” the spokesman said. “We as the government of Iraq believe this effort will be in the common interest and help the security efforts that the government is working to achieve.”
Whether the two sides negotiated the cease-fire is disputed.
Al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi government did not meet with Mehdi Army representatives.
However, Sheikh Salah al-Obaidi, a top aide to al-Sadr, said representatives of the militia met with the government in Najaf on Saturday night, the first negotiations since the government announced a crackdown on “outlaws” in Basra last week.
U.S. forces targeted the cleric’s Shiite militia in Baghdad as well, launching airstrikes that killed 15 people Sunday in neighborhoods known to be Mehdi Army strongholds, an Interior Ministry official said.
Two airstrikes in the Sadr City neighborhood killed nine people and wounded 14 others, and another strike in the al-Zuhor neighborhood, in northeastern Baghdad, killed six people and wounded 14 others, an Interior Ministry official said.
The U.S. military said it killed 11 militants in those same areas Saturday.
The Baghdad bombings came as Iraqi authorities extended indefinitely a strict curfew on the capital and as fighting between government troops and Shiite militants stretched into its sixth day, leaving about 400 people dead, according to reports from U.S. and Iraqi officials.
In Basra, part of southern Iraq’s Shiite heartland, at least 200 people have been killed and 500 wounded in battles since Tuesday, a high-ranking security official said.
Authorities there extended a ban on pedestrian and vehicle traffic just hours before the curfew was to expire Sunday morning.
Before al-Sadr issued the call to halt fighting, Al-Maliki compared the outlaws, on whom the government is cracking down, to al Qaeda and said troops would not leave Basra “until security is restored.”
“We will continue to stand up to these gangs in every inch of Iraq,” he said. “It is unfortunate that we used to use say these very words about al Qaeda, when all the while, there were people among us who are worse than al Qaeda.”
Al-Maliki met Saturday in Basra with area tribal leaders and other prominent figures, who expressed support for the government’s effort to “save Basra from criminal gangs,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
The prime minister further said that militants had until April 8 to surrender their weapons in a guns-for-cash program.
On Saturday, supporters of al-Sadr said they were being unfairly singled out in the crackdown, and the cleric told his followers not to hand over their arms “except to a state that can throw out the occupation,” al-Obaidi said.