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Shiite cleric threatens to end cease-fire

BAGHDAD - Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raised the stakes Tuesday in his showdown with government, threatening to end formally a seven-month cease-fire unless authorities stop attacks on his followers in Baghdad.

Formally ending the cease-fire could trigger renewed fighting throughout southern Iraq, nine days after a deal brokered in Iran calmed the region.

But there was no letup in the clashes in the capital Tuesday, as American and Iraqi soldiers stepped up the pressure against Shiite militants in their Sadr City stronghold of northeast Baghdad. U.S. troops fired missiles at three mortar positions, killing 12 militants, the American command said. Iraqi police and hospitals said 14 people were killed and 37 wounded in Sadr City.

Two more U.S. troops were killed in the Baghdad fighting, the U.S. command announced. At least 12 American service members have died in Iraq since Sunday. Also Tuesday, rockets or mortar shells also slammed into the U.S.-protected Green Zone, but the U.S. Embassy said there were no casualties.

The bloodshed served as stark reminders of Iraq's continuing instability five years after U.S. troops swept into Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime on April 9, 2003. The euphoria of victory was soon dissipated - first by a Sunni insurgency, then Sunni-Shiite slaughter and now battles against Shiite militiamen.

In Washington, top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus called Tuesday for an open-ended suspension of U.S. troop withdrawals this summer because of concern over the renewed fighting.

As tension rose in Baghdad on the eve of the anniversary, the Iraqi military ordered vehicles and motorcycles off the streets from 5 a.m. Wednesday until midnight - a move apparently aimed at preventing Shiite gunmen from moving freely about the city.

The vehicle ban was imposed despite a decision by al-Sadr to call off his 'million-strong' demonstration set for Wednesday to demand an end to the American military presence. Al-Sadr's Mahdi militia has been battling American and Iraqi soldiers in the sprawling Sadr City slum.

Fearing the demonstration might trigger violence throughout Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers began turning back military-aged men traveling to the capital Tuesday from Shiite areas to the south.

Al-Sadr then called off the rally, apparently fearing a modest turnout would display weakness at a time when he is locked in a violent power struggle with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite. Al-Maliki has told al-Sadr to disband his militia or give up politics.

Instead, al-Sadr's aides called a news conference at a hotel on Firdous Square, where U.S. Marines hauled down the statue of Saddam five years ago. The aides released a statement condemning the government for allegedly bowing to 'the hated American pressure.'

'I call on the Iraqi government, if it exists, to work to protect the Iraqi people, stop the spilling of its blood, and the abuse of its honor,' al Sadr said in the statement.

He also urged the government to 'demand the withdrawal of the occupier or a schedule for its withdrawal from our holy land.'

Otherwise, al-Sadr said he might formally end the cease-fire he imposed on his Mahdi militia last August - a move that U.S. officials acknowledge played a major role in calming the violence until last month.