updated 2/22/2008 5:41:19 AM ET 2008-02-22T10:41:19

Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced Friday that he will extend a cease-fire order to his Shiite Mahdi Army by another six months, giving Iraq a chance to continue its fragile recovery from brutal sectarian violence.

The decision was revealed in a message read by clerics during prayer services.

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

Separately, a bomb hidden under a horse-drawn cart exploded in downtown Baghdad earlier on Friday, killing three civilians and prompting a ban on carts in the capital.

The cart was left near a building, and the explosives apparently were detonated by remote-control at about 7:30 a.m.

Powerful militia
Al-Sadr's decision to halt the activities of his powerful militia last August was one of three critical steps that have been widely credited with bringing the Iraqi death toll down more than 60 percent in recent months.

The other pieces of the puzzle are the so-called surge of U.S. troops and the move by U.S.-backed Sunni fighters to switch allegiances and start working against al-Qaida in Iraq.

The American military has continued to raid Shiite groups it says are supported and trained by Iran and have splintered off from al-Sadr's militia. That has angered some followers of al-Sadr, who also are frustrated with the Iraqi government, and they had argued for an end to the cease-fire.

According to an AP count, at least 609 Iraqi civilians and security forces died in Iraq last month, compared to 1,920 killed in January 2007.

Baghdad, Tikrit attacks
The three killed in the bomb attack in Baghdad included a street sweeper, police said, adding that six people also were wounded in the blast. Three cars parked nearby were damaged and AP Television News footage showed the dead horse lying on its side surrounded by rubble.

Shortly after the blast, Iraqi authorities announced a ban on carts on the streets of Baghdad.

"These methods began to be used by terrorists and criminal gangs" said Husham al-Rikabi, a deputy spokesman for the Iraqi military in Baghdad.

A booby-trapped car being towed by police also blew up in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, killing two policemen and wounding four others, police said.

Police said they were removing the car after it was found parked near a market pockmarked with bullet holes and with bloodstained seats. The explosion occurred about 8 a.m. as it was being pulled into the parking lot of the local police headquarters, officials said.

Tikrit is 80 miles north of Baghdad. The police officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks. The U.S. military has warned suspected Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida are seeking new ways to avoid stepped-up security measures that have dampened their ability to stage high-profile car bombings and suicide attacks.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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