BAGHDAD - Clerics loyal to radical Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr called on his followers yesterday to respect a cease-fire and asked them to try to make peace with rival factions.
The appeals came as authorities ordered a one-day vehicle ban in the city of Baqubah after deadly suicide bombings and other attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq against predominantly Sunni fighters who have allied with the United States.
The US military has stepped up operations against Al Qaeda cells and networks north of Baghdad in Diyala province, of which Baqubah is the capital.
The overwhelmingly Sunni groups have increasingly become the targets of deadly attacks after a Dec. 29 call by Osama bin Laden that labeled them as traitors.
Known as Awakening Councils in some areas and as Concerned Local Citizens in others, the groups have been considered one of the factors that led to a 60 percent drop in violence around Iraq in the last six months. The others are an inflow of tens of thousands of US troops and the cease-fire declared in August by Sadr for his Mahdi Army militia.
The Sadrist calls for peace came during Friday prayers in the Shi'ite holy city of Kufa and the cleric's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City. They appeared to be part of ongoing attempt by Sadr to patch things up with two of Iraq's more influential Shi'ite movements: Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest Shi'ite political party, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party.
"We Sadrists are moving in the way of Moqtada's peaceful initiatives in the provinces, and especially the ones that witnessed violence," Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi, a senior aide to Sadr, said in his sermon.
In August, followers of Sadr and those loyal to Hakim fought in the holy city of Karbala during a religious festival, killing 52 people. In October, the two leaders signed a truce, which has largely held.
"We think that the best way to solve existing problems and provide all with the chance to reach the shores of peace is a comprehensive dialogue, instead of acts of violence," Mohammadawi told worshippers.
On Thursday, Sadr's representatives met with officials from Hakim's party in Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad.
Mohammadawi also warned the leaders of "Dawa and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council that there are some people who do not want this peace to be accomplished in their provinces," and he said that "if you want peace, you should expel them from their posts."
In Sadr City, a cleric loyal to Sadr urged Mahdi Army members to honor the cease-fire declared by their leader.
"We praise the positive role of the Imam al-Mahdi Army for obeying its leader's freezing order, until God wishes otherwise," said Sheik Jasim al-Metery.
Metery condemned rogue elements of the militia who were "defaming" Sadr by violating his cease-fire, which many expect will be extended.
The cease-fire has allowed the US military to concentrate on pursuing Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was pushed out of Anbar province by the Awakening Councils and largely expelled from swaths of Baghdad by the US and Iraqi armies.
In another sign of increasing desperation among the insurgents, coalition forces say they have been catching militants suspected of training women to become human bombs or finding evidence of efforts by Al Qaeda in Iraq to recruit women.
Three female suicide bombers blew themselves up within a few weeks late last year in Iraq, killing or wounding dozens - a tactic that goes against religious taboos on involving women in fighting.
With coalition forces pushing extremists out of former strongholds and shrinking their pool of potential recruits, the militants are being forced to come up with other methods to penetrate stiffened security measures, said Diaa Rashwan, who follows Islamic militancy for Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
"There's a sense that this is an act of desperation," said Colonel Donald Bacon, a US military spokesman in Baghdad.
The majority of the insurgents who have been uprooted are thought to have sought shelter in Diyala province, its northeast Diyala river valley region, and around the town of Muqdadiyah and the northern city of Mosul.
The US military said yesterday that it killed two insurgents and detained 12 in that area. The operations also resulted in the deaths of two American soldiers and the wounding of another in a small-arms attack Thursday.
Baqubah police chief Brigadier Hasan al-Obaidi said the one-day vehicle ban was imposed because of the "increased violent events during last week." The ban in the city 35 miles northeast of Baghdad also aimed to protect worshippers going to mosques.
There have been a series of suicide attacks targeting members of the burgeoning Sunni tribal movement, including one in Baqubah on Wednesday that police said killed seven people; the US military said four people died.