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Al-Sadr vows to support Iraqi government

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A radical cleric whose uprising two months ago has left hundreds dead and threatened to enflame the Shiite heartland said Friday he would cooperate with the new government if it works to end the U.S. military presence. Gunmen blew up a police station south of Baghdad in the fourth such attack against Iraqi security installations in less than a week. The conciliatory tone by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came during a sermon read by an aide to a congregation in Kufa, scene of recent fighting between his al-Mahdi Army militia and U.S. forces.

In the sermon, the fiery young cleric said "I support the new interim government" and asked his followers to "help me take this society to the path of security and peace."

"Starting now, I ask you that we open a new page for Iraq and for peace," the message said.

Al-Sadr had dismissed the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as a tool of the Americans. But he apparently softened his stand under pressure from mainstream Shiite Muslim leaders, who negotiated a truce in Najaf and Kufa this month between the al-Mahdi Army and U.S. soldiers.

In an interview Friday night with Al Arabiya television, al-Sadr's spokesman, Ahmed al-Shibani, said the cleric was ready for a dialogue with the government "on condition that it works to end the occupation and clearly announces to the Iraqi people and to the world that it rejects the occupation."

"It has to put a timetable for the end of the occupation," al-Shibani said. "This is the main and principled way to recognize this government and cooperate with it."

The U.S.-led occupation formally ends June 30 with the transfer of sovereignty to Allawi's government, and the U.N. resolution approved Tuesday by the Security Council sets a deadline of 2006 for ending the multinational military presence.

The resolution also allows both the interim government and the one due to be elected in January to terminate the mandate for the force — although that appears unlikely.

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