Al-Sadr issued a statement asking those among his men who do not come form Najaf, go home. ‘Each of the individuals of the Mehdi Army, the loyalists who made sacrifices should return to their governorates to do their duty,’ the statement said.

Despite an earlier truce, outbreaks of fighting between Al-Sadr’s militia, known as the Mehdi Army, and troops continued in Najaf and the surrounding area.

On 11 June Al-Sadr said the recently formed interim government was a opportunity to ‘build a unified Iraq’.

Al-Sadr’s call for his supporters to leave Najaf was made the day after US President Bush confirmed Iraqi authorities should deal with the cleric. Prior to this, Washington had wanted to arrest him and charge him with murder.

Interim Iraqi President Ghazi Yawer has said Al-Sadr can join mainstream Iraqi politics on the condition that he disbands the Mehdi Army.