BAGHDAD - Powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr extended his Mehdi Army militia ceasefire by around six months on Friday, according to a statement read out on his behalf in a mosque in Baghdad.
The move is likely to be widely welcomed by U.S. and Iraqi officials, who say the initial six-month truce helped to sharply reduce attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops as well as tit-for-tat sectarian violence in Iraq.
Hazim al-Araji, a senior leader in Sadr's movement, read out the decision at Kadhimiya mosque in northern Baghdad, a Reuters witness said.
Sadr's decision had been sent in sealed envelopes to imams of mosques affiliated with the cleric. The imams had been ordered to read the decision at midday Muslim prayers.
Many Mehdi Army members and Sadrist political leaders had wanted the truce scrapped, saying it was being exploited by Iraqi and U.S. forces to arrest Sadrists, especially in southern Iraq, where rival Shi'ite factions are vying for dominance.
The U.S. military blamed the Mehdi Army for fuelling a cycle of sectarian violence with Iraq's Sunni Arab minority in 2006 and 2007 and at one time called the militia the greatest single threat to peace in the country.
Sadr called the ceasefire after deadly clashes in late August between his militia, Iraqi forces and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a rival Shi'ite faction, in the city of Kerbala.
Analysts say he decided on the initial truce to bring into line elements in the militia, some of whom had become involved in gangsterism and organised crime.
U.S. commanders say violence in Iraq has dropped 60 percent since June 2007, owing to Sadr's ceasefire, 30,000 extra U.S. soldiers and many Sunni Arab leaders turning against al Qaeda.
Sadr's decision could prove vital in determining whether the security gains can be maintained, thus allowing the U.S. military to continue withdrawing soldiers beyond the more than 20,000 that are scheduled to be leave by July. There are currently around 155,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday he hoped to pull more troops out of Iraq after a brief pause in withdrawals in July or August to give the military time to assess the likely impact of lower force levels.
"My hope is that we will be able to further draw down our troops in Iraq over the course of the next 10 to 12 months," he said, speaking in a plane on the way to a meeting in Australia.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has recommended a pause in withdrawals once the initial reductions are complete in July to assess the security situation. Gates said Petraeus convinced him that a pause would be appropriate.
While praising Sadr for the truce, the U.S. military has pursued what it calls rogue elements of the Mehdi Army. It accuses Iran of arming these groups, a charge Tehran denies.