Al-Sadr Calls Gunmen Off Streets

BAGHDAD -- Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said Sunday that he was pulling his fighters off the streets nationwide and called on the government to stop raids against his followers and free them from prison.

The Iraqi government quickly welcomed Sadr's apparent move to resolve a widening conflict with his movement sparked Tuesday by operations against his backers in the oil-rich southern city of Basra.

Sadr's nine-point statement was issued by his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf and broadcast through loudspeakers on Shiite mosques. It said the first point was: "taking gunmen off the streets in Basra and elsewhere."

He also demanded that the Iraqi government stop "haphazard raids" and release security detainees who haven't been charged, two issues cited by his movement as reasons for fighting the government.

Followers handed out sweets in Baghdad's main Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called it "positive and responsible," in a telephone interview broadcast on Iraqi state TV.

But he also warned that the Iraqi security forces would continue to target those who refusted to follow the order.

"We expect a wide response to this call," he said. "After this announcement, anybody who targets the government and its institutions will be regarded ... as outlaws."

Scattered firing could be heard in central Baghdad hours after Sadr's statement was released, and rockets or mortars were fired toward the U.S.-protected Green Zone.

At least seven Iraqis were killed and 21 wounded when two rounds apparently fell short, striking houses in the commercial district of Karradah, police said.

A U.S. public address system in the Green Zone warned people to "duck and cover" and to stay away from windows.

Sadr's decision came after Iraqi security forces faced fierce resistance to a crackdown against militia violence in the southern city of Basra.

Dozens of Shiite gunmen stormed a state TV facility in central Basra earlier Sunday, forcing Iraqi troops guarding the building to flee and setting armored vehicles on fire.