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Sadr aide says cleric may end cease-fire

Anger over raids is the key factor

BAGHDAD - Radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could end a ban on his militia's activities because of rising anger over US and Iraqi raids against his followers, an aide said yesterday amid concerns about rising violence and clashes between rival factions in the mainly Shi'ite south.

Sadr's call for a six-month cease-fire has been credited with a sharp drop in the number of fatal shootings on the streets of Iraq, which are believed to be victims of Shi'ite death squads.

Baghdad police found three people slain execution-style and bearing signs of torture yesterday, compared with the dozens often found on a typical day before Sadr's declaration. The morgue in the southern city of Kut received two bodies, including one pulled from the Tigris River.

Another five Iraqis were killed in attacks nationwide, including a woman who was caught up in a suicide attack north of Baghdad while walking to the market.

The US military reported that an American soldier was killed and four were wounded in southern Baghdad on Thursday when their unit was hit with an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP. The United States claims Iran supplies Shi'ite militants with the weapon, which fires an armor-piercing, fist-sized copper slug.

The United States welcomed Sadr's August cease-fire declaration but has continued to target what it says are Iranian-backed breakaway factions of his Mahdi Army militia, and appears to have escalated the campaign recently.

The military said US paratroopers in combat yesterday in the southern Shi'ite city of Hillah found a cache of weapons including 27 Iranian-made 107mm rockets and two launch systems, each capable of firing 20 rockets at once. The military has announced a series of such finds in recent days as it seeks to bolster its claim of Iranian support for rogue Shi'ite fighters. Tehran denies the allegations. The United States also said this week that American forces killed 49 Shi'ite extremists in a ground and air assault in the militia stronghold of Sadr City. Witnesses and officials said 15 people were killed - all civilians.

Sadr nonetheless renewed his appeal to uphold the cease-fire and threatened to expel Mahdi Army members who don't in what his office called a response to questions from supporters about whether the cease-fire still applied in the face of the US crackdown.

Sadr aide Sheik Assad al-Nasseri said during a sermon in Kufa that patience with US operations was running out and the freeze could be lifted anytime.

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