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Mehdi Army hiatus a relief for U.S. military

  • Story Highlights
  • Pentagon calls Shiite cleric's decision "encouraging"
  • Military can focus on al Qaeda in Iraq, statement says
  • Iraq government hopes other militias follow al-Sadr's lead
  • Iraqi civilian deaths rise for third consecutive month
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The U.S. military called radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's order to suspend his Mehdi Army militia for the next six months "encouraging."

A Mehdi Army member holds a rocket launcher and the Quran during a parade in Baghdad in 2006.

In a statement issued Saturday, the military said al-Sadr's order would enable the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi security forces to "intensify their focus on al Qaeda in Iraq...without distraction from [Mehdi Army] attacks."

Al-Sadr's suspension -- which one of his senior aides said would be a period for restructuring -- comes after nearly 60 people were killed and scores were injured during recent street fighting between armed Shiite factions in Karbala and Baghdad.

"Muqtada al-Sadr's declaration holds the potential to reduce criminal activity and help reunite Iraqis separated by ethno-sectarian violence and fear," the U.S. military said.

The cleric, who emerged as a popular grass-roots Shiite leader after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein, has been staunchly opposed to the U.S. occupation.

The U.S. military has tangled with his forces in Baghdad's Sadr City and in southern Iraq and, through the years, his political clout across Iraq's Shiite heartland has grown.

The military believes rogue members of al-Sadr's group have smuggled weaponry and received training from Iran.

An end to Mehdi Army "would also be an important step in helping Iraqi authorities focus greater attention on achieving the political and economic solutions necessary for progress and less on dealing with criminal activity, sectarian violence, kidnappings, assassinations, and attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces," the military said.

Al-Sadr has openly opposed violent actions before, and last week he called for calm and urged his followers not to attack rivals' offices.

But observers think that many Mehdi Army fighters are breakaway forces who are more radical than al-Sadr himself.

Iraq's government hopes the Mehdi Army's hiatus will spur similar moves by other armed groups.

"This initiative is an encouraging step toward consolidating security and stability throughout the country and an opportunity for the suspension of the work of the rest of the militias in various political and ideological affiliations to preserve the unity, independence and sovereignty of Iraq," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office said Thursday.

The number of Iraqi civilians killed in violence across the country rose in August for the third consecutive month, the Iraqi Interior Ministry told CNN Friday.

But the number of Iraqi soldiers and police officers killed dropped in August from last month's totals.

Using figures collected from Iraqi Interior, Defense and Health ministries' records, the Interior Ministry said 1,773 civilians were killed in August, up from 1,653 in July. In June the number had dipped to 1,227 from May's 1,949.

Twenty-one Iraqi soldiers were killed in August, compared with 79 in July and 31 in June. Sixty-six police officers were killed, down from 145 in July and 190 in June.

U.S. troop deaths in August matched July's number of 79, the lowest toll since November 2006.

According to CNN daily counts, the number of unidentified bodies recovered in Baghdad also dropped in August, to 428 from 612 in July and 563 in June. Those deaths would be part of the overall civilian death figures supplied to CNN by the Interior Ministry.

The number of people described as insurgents who died in August was 472; up from 428 in July and 416 in June. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Yousif Bassil and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

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