updated 4/4/2008 6:56:48 AM ET 2008-04-04T10:56:48

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday ordered a nationwide freeze on raids against suspected Shiite militiamen, according to a statement issued by his office.

The announcement was a major shift from comments he made a day earlier, and came after Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr — whose Mahdi Army militia fought government troops in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad last week — hinted at retaliation if arrests of his followers did not stop.

Meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at least 15 people and wounded eight when he blew himself up during a policeman's funeral north of Baghdad on Friday, police said.

Elsewhere, Iraqi troops killed seven militants and detained 16 on Thursday in three separate incidents in the southern city of Basra, a U.S. military statement said Friday.

Al-Sadr on Sunday ordered his militiamen off the streets in a move that ended the weeklong fighting. He also demanded that the government stop arresting his followers and free detainees held without charge.

Al-Maliki's statement did not mention the Mahdi Army by name or give a timeframe for the freeze, saying only that the move is designed to give a "chance to those who repented and want to lay down their arms."

Goodwill gesture
Al-Maliki's move appeared to be a goodwill gesture toward al-Sadr and his followers. But it was also a dramatic turnabout: He said Thursday that he intended to launch security operations against Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad, including Sadr City, home to some 2.5 million Shiites and the militia's largest base.

Al-Maliki said last week that gunmen in Basra had until April 8 to surrender their heavy weapons, but Friday's statement made no mention of that deadline.

"Those who lay down their arms and participated in the recent acts of violence will not be prosecuted," said the statement. He also ordered the repatriation of families forced to flee their homes because of the latest fighting and cash donations to the families of those killed or wounded in the violence.

He said Iraqis whose property has been damaged in the fighting would also be compensated.

Soldiers refusing to fight
Meanwhile on Friday, The New York Times reported that more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and police refused to fight or abandoned their posts during the fighting in Basra, citing an unnamed senior Iraqi government official.

Iraqi military officials said the group included at least two senior field commanders and dozens of officers.

The desertions cast new doubt on the effectiveness of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. The White House has conditioned further U.S. troop withdrawals on the readiness of the Iraqi military and police.

The Diyala attacker detonated an explosives vest in the midst of mourners attending the funeral of a Sunni policeman who was shot Thursday night, said an officer who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The attack occurred in Sadiyah, a town 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Most of the victims of the attack — the deadliest in Diyala this year — appeared to be relatives of the dead policemen, the officer said.

Suspected militant captured
In Basra, Iraqi special forces captured a suspected militant leader who has been rallying insurgents in Basra to fight against coalition forces, the military statement said.

"Intelligence reports have linked the man to the kidnapping and murder of Iraqi Army and ISOF soldiers. He is also believed to be involved in oil smuggling and foreign fighter networks," said the statement, which did not provide any further details.

In a separate firefight, a U.S. warplane was used to bomb insurgents engaging Iraqi special forces in the city. The air strike killed two militants, the statement said.

The United Nations on Friday appealed for $265 million to improve the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Iraq.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said in Jordan that the funds would cover food, health, shelter, water sanitation, education and agriculture.

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

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