Google News - Representatives of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi authorities have begun talks to end fierce fighting between security forces and Shiite militiamen that has killed several hundred people, an aide to Sadr said on Sunday.
"Negotiations between the Sadr movement and an Iraqi government delegation started last night (Saturday) and are going in the right direction to solve the crisis," Salah al-Obeidi, Sadr's spokesman in the shrine city of Najaf, told AFP.
The talks began hours after Sadr ordered his followers to defy a call by prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to lay down their arms in the southern port and oil hub of Basra, the flashpoint of the brutal clashes.
"These are the first direct negotiations between the two sides to try to resolve the crisis," said Liqa al-Yassin, a Sadrist MP.
It was unclear if the talks had resumed on Sunday.
Both the Iraqi capital and Basra remained under curfew on Sunday amid the deadly standoff between the Iraqi security forces and Sadr's feared Madhi Army, the most powerful Shiite militia in the violence-ravaged country.
Maliki had given a 72-hour deadline to Shiite fighters in Basra to disarm after launching an offensive against them last Tuesday.
The deadline expired on Friday.
"Sadr has told us not to surrender our arms except to a state that can throw out the (US) occupation," Haider al-Jabari of the Sadr movement's political bureau told AFP on Saturday.
The same day, Maliki vowed to press on with his assault in Basra, saying the militiamen were "worse than Al-Qaeda."
"Unfortunately we were talking about Al-Qaeda but there are some among us who are worse than Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is killing innocents, Al-Qaeda is destroying establishments and they (Shiite gunmen) also," he said.
Basra is the focus of a turf war between the Mahdi Army and two rival Shiite factions -- the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and the smaller Fadhila party.
The stand-off there has spread to other Shiite areas of Iraq, including the sprawling Shiite neighbourhood of Baghdad's Sadr City, the bastion of Sadr loyalists.
Fighting in Sadr City has killed at least 90 people since Tuesday and the nationwide death toll has crossed 270, including at least 50 in Basra, according to security officials
The two cities of Baghdad and Basra were locked down on Sunday amid round-the-clock curfew for several days.
Pedestrians and vehicles stayed off the streets of the Iraqi capital for a third straight day of curfew, while the oil hub of Basra was relatively calm, residents said.
They however added that two neighbourhoods of Basra had been bombed during night by US or British jets. The two militaries did not immediately confirm the assaults.
US warplanes had carried out air strikes in the city on Friday and Saturday in which several people were killed, Iraqi and US officials said.
But on Sunday, the US military acknowledged that its ground troops had started participating in the Basra assault.
A team of American special forces joined the battle in Basra, combining with Iraqi troops in an operation that killed 22 militants on Saturday, the military said.
The joint operation was in a known "criminal stronghold" in western Basra, a US military statement said.
Earlier US and Bitish forces have said they have been giving air support to operations since Tuesday.
British troops have deployed outside their base on the edge of Basra in support of the Iraqi operations, British military spokesman Major Tom Holloway said on Sunday.
"There are no plans for our troops to enter the city. We are providing other forms of support," he told AFP.
This includes air support and surveillance as well as logistical back-up including refuelling helicopters and supplying ammunition and medical supplies.
The stand-off between Iraqi and US-led forces is the most intense one since 2004, when the Mahdi Army launched a rebellion against American troops in the central city of Najaf.
Other Shiite cities, such as Kut, Hilla, Nasiriyah and Karbala, meanwhile were also quiet Sunday after heavy clashes earlier in the week.