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DOUBTS GROW FOR RENEWAL OF CEASE-FIRE

A Shiite cleric's silence on Saturday would likely add to a surge in violence near Baghdad.

With deadly attacks against U.S. targets increasing around Baghdad, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raised the possibility Wednesday that he may not renew a six-month cease-fire credited for helping slash violence.

The cease-fire is due to expire Saturday, and there were fears, especially among minority Sunni Arabs, that the re-emergence of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia could return Iraq to where it was just a year ago - with sectarian death squads prowling the streets of a country on the brink of civil war.

A surge of violence would also make it all the more difficult for Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to reach agreements on sharing power and wealth, and greatly complicate the debate in the United States on whether and how quickly to withdraw troops.

Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, blamed Iranian-backed Shiite extremists for rocket attacks - including one Monday against an Iraqi housing complex near the country's main U.S. military base that killed at least five people and wounded 16, including two U.S. soldiers.

Smith also said one American civilian was killed and a number of U.S. troops and civilian personnel were wounded in a rocket attack in the southeastern area of Rustamiyah on Tuesday night. He did not elaborate, but there is a U.S. base in the predominantly Shiite area.

He said those attacks and another on Tuesday were carried out by "Iranian-backed special group criminals," a term the military uses to describe groups that broke away from the Mahdi Army militia or refused to respect the cease-fire.

The U.S. military has angered some Sadrists by carrying out raids against breakaway factions. There have been calls from within the militia and its political wing to call off the cease-fire.

The cease-fire has been a key element in helping reduce violence since mid 2007. The other factors are the influx of thousands of U.S. troops last summer, and the creation of Sunni-dominated groups funded by the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.

"Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq. We would welcome the extension of the cease-fire as a positive step," Smith said, using an honorific reserved for descendants of the prophet Mohammed.

Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying the cease-fire was extended, "then that means the freeze is over."

On an Internet site representing al-Sadr, al-Obeidi said that al-Sadr "either will announce the extension or will stay silent and not announce anything. If he stays silent, that means that the freeze is over."

Al-Obeidi said that message "has been conveyed to all Mahdi Army members nationwide."

FAST FACTS

The latest

- Attorneys asked a military judge Wednesday to dismiss charges against a Marine Corps officer accused of failing to investigate the 2005 killing of 24 people by Marines in Haditha. The attorneys filed five motions in advance of a pretrial hearing for Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the highest-ranking U.S. serviceman to face a combat-related court-martial since the Vietnam War.

- A soldier who had been charged with murder in the death of an unarmed Iraqi was convicted by a military jury Wednesday of aggravated assault. Spc. Christopher Shore insisted that his platoon leader ordered him to kill the Iraqi man in June near Kirkuk and that he intentionally fired to miss. Shore faces a sentence of eight years.

- On Wednesday, a U.S. soldier was killed and three were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the city of Mosul, said the military.

- Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, said that two women used as suicide bombers in attacks this month had undergone psychiatric treatment for depression and/or schizophrenia but that there was no indication they had Down's syndrome, as Iraqi and American officials initially had claimed.

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