Iraq's prime minister on Friday ordered a nationwide moratorium on raids against suspected Shia militants after the leader of the biggest militia complained that arrests were continuing even after he ordered fighters off the streets.
The announcement was a major shift from comments Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a day earlier, and came after Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr — whose Mahdi Army militia fought government troops in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad last week — hinted at retaliation if arrests of his followers did not stop.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at least 15 people and wounded eight when he blew himself up during a policeman's funeral north of Baghdad on Friday, police said.
In continuing combat in Basra, Iraqi troops killed seven militants and detained 16 in three separate incidents Thursday, a U.S. military statement said Friday.
Al-Sadr on Sunday ordered his militiamen off the streets in a move that ended the weeklong fighting. He also demanded the government stop arresting his followers and free detainees held without charge.
Al-Maliki's statement did not mention the Mahdi Army by name or give a timeframe for the freeze, saying only that the move is designed to give a "chance to those who repented and want to lay down their arms."
Al-Maliki's move appeared to be a goodwill gesture toward al-Sadr and his followers. But it was also a dramatic turnabout. On Thursday he said he intended to launch security operations against Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad, including Sadr City, home to some 2.5 million Shias and the militia's largest base.
Al-Maliki said last week that gunmen in Basra had until April 8 to surrender their heavy weapons, but Friday's statement made no mention of that deadline.
"Those who lay down their arms and participated in the recent acts of violence will not be prosecuted," said the statement. He also ordered the repatriation of families forced to flee their homes because of the latest fighting and cash donations to the families of those killed or wounded in the violence.
He said Iraqis whose property has been damaged in the fighting would also be compensated.
Despite a drop in fighting, Iraqi officials insist the Basra crackdown will continue until it breaks the stronghold that armed groups have had on the city since 2005.
Meanwhile on Friday, The New York Times reported that more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police refused to fight or abandoned their posts during the fighting in Basra, citing an unnamed senior Iraqi government official.
Iraqi military officials said the group included at least two senior field commanders and dozens of officers.