BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Anti-American Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr would dissolve his Mehdi Army militia if the United States started withdrawing troops according to a set timetable, a spokesman said.
A car bomb in the northern town of Tal Afar killed 18 people and wounded 25, police said, an attack that demonstrated the potential for violence that persists in a country that has become far more peaceful over the past year.
Police said the bomb struck a crowded vegetable market. The town is near the city of Mosul, in an area where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have launched a crackdown on al Qaeda Sunni Arab militants in recent months.
U.S. forces said 15 people were killed and 50 wounded.
Sadr's decision to link disarming his militia to a U.S. withdrawal comes at a crucial point in talks between Baghdad and Washington over a security pact to provide a legal basis for U.S. troops in Iraq when a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
U.S. President George W. Bush has refused to set a firm timetable for withdrawing 144,000 American troops from Iraq, but spoke last month of a general "time horizon" for a pullout.
Iraqi negotiators have proposed that U.S. combat troops leave the country by October 2010, although Washington has not yet agreed to it, a senior Iraqi official said on Friday.
If agreed, the timetable would mean the Bush administration effectively adopting a schedule very close to that proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
A ceasefire imposed by Sadr on his militia a year ago has been a major factor in a drop in violence to four-year lows. Sadr, whose political movement controls 10 percent of seats in parliament, has long demanded U.S. troops leave Iraq.
"We feel there's a serious intention by the American forces for a withdrawal timetable at the very least," Sadr's spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi said before Friday prayers, when the cleric launched a new cultural wing of his movement.