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Iraqi leader freezes assault on militias

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  • NEW: U.N. agency says 713 people, mostly civilians, killed in recent fighting
  • At least 15 killed by suicide attack on police funeral procession in Diyala
  • Iraqi prime minister orders freeze on raids on militias by security forces
  • Nuri al-Maliki says pause will give "repentant" militants time to lay down their guns
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Friday ordered his security forces to stop raids on suspected Shiite militia members to "give time to those who are repentant" to lay down their weapons.

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Iraqi soldiers examine the scene of a car bombing Thursday in Baghdad.

Al-Maliki's order came a day after radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr offered to help purge militia members from Iraqi security forces. He criticized the government for denying that it had sent envoys to him to discuss last week's government offensive in the southern city of Basra.

The Basra offensive sparked fighting between security forces in other Shiite cities and in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad. The clashes subsided when al-Sadr told his followers to stand down Sunday after he met with Iranian officials and Iraqi Shiite lawmakers in Iran.

The prime minister's order to halt raids, signed Friday, did not mention al-Sadr's Mehdi Army by name. It said that "pursuits and raids in all areas will cease" to allow time for people to lay down their weapons. The order also warned that "those who go back to carrying weapons will be held accountable."

The order also covered the return of families displaced by the recent fighting and restitution for those who were injured, lost relatives or suffered damage to their property.

Al-Maliki also ordered a resumption of reconstruction projects and services in the areas of fighting.

The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq said Friday that "713 civilians and non-civilians have been killed and 1,541 injured in Baghdad, Basra, Wassit and Babylon" between March 25 and April 1. Most were civilians, it said in a statement.

"It is too early to tell if the restored sense of calm in most areas will continue, but early indications are positive," it added. "However, the situation remains volatile and can quickly escalate."

Asked what impact al-Maliki's order would have on U.S. military operations, military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover said, "We don't see this as an issue. We target criminals and terrorists who violate the rule of law."

Stover added, "We arrest, capture or kill those who are committing a violent act or about to commit a violent act against the people of Baghdad, the [Iraqi security forces] or U.S. soldiers."

Al-Sadr's statement was read to CNN on Thursday by Saleh al-Ageili, a spokesman for the Sadrist parliamentary bloc.

"I advise everyone to end the sedition, to stop the bloodshed and arrests immediately," the cleric said. "And if the government cannot make infiltrators and other Baathists, terrorists, militias of parties and saboteurs surrender, we are ready to cooperate with [the government] to cleanse our army and police of them. Let the government and people be one to liberate Iraq of the occupier."

Al-Maliki said in Baghdad that there were no government negotiations with Shiite militias and emphasized that he didn't send an envoy to Sadrist headquarters for talks.

The Iraqi government said the operation, which began March 25, targeted criminals who had been carrying out indiscriminate attacks, burglaries and oil smuggling. Iraqi and U.S. authorities insisted that militias weren't targeted, but much of the fighting occurred in strongholds of al-Sadr's militia.

About 400 U.S. military personnel are deployed to Basra in support of the operation, and another 150 are providing support from a distance, a senior U.S. military official said Thursday.

More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers deserted in Basra and other hotspots during the fighting, a senior Iraqi official said. Others simply took off their uniforms and joined the Shiite militias the army was battling, the official said.

A closely held U.S. military intelligence analysis of the fighting showed that Iraqi security forces controlled less than a quarter of the city, according to American officials, who said that members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army infiltrated Basra's police units.

Al-Maliki has called the operation in the oil-rich southern city a success but said it exposed "weaknesses" in the security forces, including operational snafus and troop desertions, that he said will be reviewed.

The prime minister -- who was in Basra overseeing the fighting in its early days last week -- sloughed off criticism the widespread action was poorly planned, was politically motivated and failed to dislodge the renegade militias from their strongholds across Basra, Iraq's second largest city.

Asked about possible government operations in Sadr City, Sadrist spokesman al-Ageili said a committee led by al-Sadr is monitoring events and issues directives accordingly.

"This is solid leadership, and we will not seek an escalation," he said.

The prime minister also has promised a major offensive targeting al Qaeda in Iraq, a predominantly Sunni group, in the northern city of Mosul.

Al-Ageili also said that al-Sadr's office had called for peaceful demonstrations in Baghdad's Sadr City after Friday prayers "to protest the campaign of raids carried out by the occupier."

Also, al-Sadr's office called for millions of Iraqis to demonstrate Wednesday in Baghdad against the U.S. presence in Iraq, a protest that would coincide with the fifth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime and scheduled testimony in Washington from top U.S. officials in Iraq.

Al-Sadr's message was all-encompassing, an address to all Iraqis: Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Arabs, "mujahedeen and the patient people" and those who've lost loved ones in the war.

The group is urging Iraqis to wave flags, demand independence, back Iraqi unity, support "oppressed people" and do so in a way that dignifies Islam.

"It is the time to express your rejection and raise your voices loudly in Iraq's sky against the unjust occupier, the enemy of nations and humanity and against the awful massacres committed by the occupier and unjust people against our noble nation," a Sadrist statement said.

Meanwhile, at least 15 people were killed Friday when a suicide bomber struck a funeral procession in Diyala province, according to an official with the provincial military command. At least 12 people also were wounded in al-Sa'adiya, a town about 35 miles northeast of Baquba, the official said.

The funeral was for a police officer whom gunmen killed Thursday night, the official said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Barbara Starr and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

All About IraqMuqtada al-SadrAl Qaeda in Iraq

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