The U.S. military confirmed Thursday that it had released one of the top aides to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, handing the man over to the custody of the Iraqi government.

Sheik Ahmed Abady al-Shaibani, who was arrested some 2½ years ago in Najaf, was released because he “could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq.”

The release of al-Shaibani had come at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi officials said.

The move is seen as an attempt to enlist the Sadrists in the fight against Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida in Iraq.

“This is a great victory for us,” Abdul Mahdi al-Matiri, a senior member of al-Sadr’s political council, was quoted as saying to wire services.

“We cannot deny that this happened with major efforts from the prime minister.”

Al-Shaibani was escorted to al-Maliki’s office by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.

Al-Shaibani is described as having played a major role in the 2004 battles between al-Sadr’s militia and U.S. troops.

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