BAGHDAD, Oct 31: Iraqi Shia militants won a major political victory on Tuesday when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered US and Iraqi units to lift a blockade around the flashpoint suburb of Sadr City.

American commanders believe Shia gunmen may be holding a kidnapped US soldier in the east Baghdad slum and since last week they have been maintaining a cordon of checkpoints and roadblocks around the area.

Iraqi and US forces have also launched raids inside the district, most recently on Tuesday morning, when they arrested three suspects.

But US forces began lifting the blockade shortly before Maliki’s 5.00pm deadline, triggering a triumphant response from local youths who waved banners from trucks and mopeds in an impromptu victory rally.

“I know that the checkpoints down Canal Street have been removed and that this is opening up, but the other specifics of what the forces are dong right now I can’t comment on,” said US spokesman Lt-Col Chris Garver.

Canal Street runs along the entire southern flank of Sadr City, a Shia district home to 2.5 million people, that has effectively been sealed off by US and Iraqi forces since the middle of last week.

Anger at traffic jams and lost business had been growing inside Sadr City, and on Tuesday militants loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered a general strike, shutting down shops, offices and schools.

“Your patience and unity brought victory,” rejoiced a statement from Sadr’s office after the checkpoints started coming down.

The Shia prime minister, who owes his job to the votes of pro-Sadr lawmakers, responded to the protest by ordering the US blockade lifted.

40 MISSING: More than 40 people are missing after armed kidnappers ambushed minibuses travelling to Baghdad on a main road north of the Iraqi capital on Tuesday, police in the city of Tikrit said.

In what has become a grim feature of the sectarian violence gripping Iraq, gunmen select their victims at random checkpoints based on their religious denomination. Most appear dead later.—Reuters

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