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SHIITE CLERIC EXTENDS CEASE-FIRE FOR SIX MONTHS

Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opted Friday to keep the cease-fire order for his Mahdi Army militia in place for another six months, a step that likely will hold down U.S. and Iraqi casualties while bolstering Sadr's importance as a political player.

Opening a sealed statement from the firebrand leader, scores of Shiite clerics around the country read Sadr's message at Friday prayer services. In Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, thousands of men sat and listened attentively to the statement.

"According to an order by Sayyid Muqtada, activities of the Mahdi Army will be suspended ... for another six-month period," Sadr aide Hazim al-Aaraji said at the Kazimiyah mosque in Baghdad, using an honorific for the cleric.

Along with an increase in U.S. troop levels and a move by American-backed Sunni fighters to turn against their former al-Qaida in Iraq allies, the cease-fire has been credited with reducing war deaths among Iraqis by nearly 70 percent in six months, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press.

The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Sadr once supported but has turned away from, issued a statement saying that the "Sadr bloc is an essential cornerstone in the political process and in the new Iraq."

U.S. officials called Sadr's decision a positive development.

New violence: A suicide bomber struck Sunni worshipers at a mosque in the city of Amiriyah in Anbar province on Friday, killing four people.

GATES IN AUSTRALIA: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Australian defense minister played down the potential for friction between the two allies over the new government's pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq.

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