Shia Groups Strike Accord in Southern Iraq

The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his chief rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, have reached a truce to end bloodshed between their loyalists that has killed scores of Iraqis and raised fears of a new front in the Iraq war.

Officials of Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council said the deal was hammered out during a 41⁄2 hour meeting between the Shiite leaders, whose militias have been vying for control of oil-rich southern Iraq.

Britain is decreasing its troop strength in the overwhelmingly Shiite south and there are concerns that in the absence of foreign forces war will break out between Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Organisation militia of Hakim's party.

More than 50 Iraqis, most of them Shiite pilgrims, died in August in militia clashes in the southern city of Karbala.

Britain plans to pull 1000 of its 5500 soldiers still in Iraq out of their base in Basra by Christmas. The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, facing pressure at home to end his country's involvement in the war, is expected to announce further withdrawals soon.

An announcement of the truce, broadcast on the satellite television station controlled by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, said it would include the forming of committees in each province to work out problems before they escalate into violence.

Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite politics at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US foreign policy forum, said the pact was significant. "The two have the largest militias and the most extensive political networks and bases of support," he said. "The deal, if it sticks, can bring stability to southern Iraq."

A spokesman for Sadr said the deal was aimed at calming tensions on the streets but would have no impact on the clergyman's decision to leave the Shiite political alliance of the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Sadr's decision to pull his 30 politicians from the bloc last month left Mr Maliki's alliance with only 83 seats in the 275-member parliament.

Sadr has been a fierce opponent of the US presence in Iraq and has criticised Mr Maliki for not demanding the withdrawal of American forces.

Analysts say Sadr's moves since February, when the US President, George Bush, sent additional forces to Iraq to encourage political progress in Baghdad, indicate he is preparing to take on a more powerful role when troops begin leaving.

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