Iraq's Sadr orders armed followers off the streets

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NAJAF, Iraq, March 30 (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on his armed followers on Sunday to leave the streets and stop battling government forces in Basra and other southern towns.

"Because of the religious responsibility, and to stop Iraqi blood being shed, and to maintain the unity of Iraq and to put an end to this sedition that the occupiers and their followers want to spread among the Iraqi people, we call for an end to armed appearances in Basra and all other provinces," Sadr said in a statement given to journalists by his aides.

"Anyone carrying a weapon and targeting government institutions will not be one of us."

Iraqi government troops have been battling fighters loyal to Sadr in Basra for six days. The fighting has spread to other towns in southern Iraq and neighbourhoods of Baghdad, exposing a deep rift with Iraq's majority Shi'ite community.

In his statement Sadr denied that his followers possessed heavy weapons. He said the government should stop large-scale arrests of his followers and implement an amnesty to free prisoners held in detention.

Reporting by Khaled Farhan; writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Samia Nakhoul