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Al-Sadr threatens to end militia cease-fire

Apr. 8, 2008 - 04:45PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 8, 2008 - 04:45PM  |  
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BAGHDAD — Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raised the stakes Tuesday in his showdown with the Iraqi government, threatening to end formally a seven-month cease-fire unless authorities stop attacks on his followers in Baghdad.

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BAGHDAD — Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raised the stakes Tuesday in his showdown with the Iraqi government, threatening to end formally a seven-month cease-fire unless authorities stop attacks on his followers in Baghdad.

Formally ending the cease-fire could trigger renewed fighting throughout southern Iraq, nine days after a deal brokered in Iran calmed the region.

But there was no letup in the clashes in the capital Tuesday, as American and Iraqi soldiers stepped up the pressure against Shiite militants in their Sadr City stronghold of northeast Baghdad. U.S. troops fired missiles at three mortar positions, killing 12 militants, the American command said. Iraqi police and hospitals said 14 people were killed and 37 wounded in Sadr City.

Two more U.S. troops were killed in the Baghdad fighting, the U.S. command announced. At least 12 American service members have died in Iraq since Sunday. Also Tuesday, rockets or mortar shells slammed into the U.S.-protected Green Zone, but the U.S. Embassy said there were no casualties.

The bloodshed served as stark reminders of Iraq's continuing instability five years after U.S. troops swept into Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime on April 9, 2003. The euphoria of victory was soon dissipated — first by a Sunni insurgency, then Sunni-Shiite slaughter and now battles against Shiite militiamen.

In Washington, top U.S. commander Army Gen. David Petraeus called Tuesday for an open-ended suspension of U.S. troop withdrawals this summer because of concern over the renewed fighting.

As tension rose in Baghdad on the eve of the anniversary, the Iraqi military ordered vehicles and motorcycles off the streets from 5 a.m. Wednesday until midnight — a move apparently aimed at preventing Shiite gunmen from moving freely about the city.

The vehicle ban was imposed despite a decision by al-Sadr to call off his "million-strong" demonstration set for Wednesday to demand an end to the American military presence. Al-Sadr's Mahdi militia has been battling American and Iraqi soldiers in the sprawling Sadr City slum.

Fearing the demonstration might trigger violence throughout Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers began turning back military-aged men traveling to the capital Tuesday from Shiite areas to the south.

Al-Sadr then called off the rally, apparently fearing a modest turnout would display weakness at a time when he is locked in a violent power struggle with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite. Al-Maliki has told al-Sadr to disband his militia or give up politics.

Instead, al-Sadr's aides called a news conference at a hotel on Firdous Square, where U.S. Marines hauled down the statue of Saddam five years ago. The aides released a statement condemning the government for allegedly bowing to "the hated American pressure."

"I call on the Iraqi government, if it exists, to work to protect the Iraqi people, stop the spilling of its blood, and the abuse of its honor," al-Sadr said in the statement.

He also urged the government to "demand the withdrawal of the occupier or a schedule for its withdrawal from our holy land."

Otherwise, al-Sadr said he might formally end the cease-fire he imposed on his Mahdi militia last August — a move that U.S. officials acknowledge played a major role in calming the violence until last month.

New fighting flared after al-Maliki led a major crackdown March 25 on Shiite militias and criminal gangs in the southern city of Basra. That triggered a violent backlash by Shiite militiamen, who launched attacks across southern Iraq and Baghdad, including firing missiles into the Green Zone.

Fighting eased after al-Sadr called on his militia March 30 to halt attacks. But clashes have continued in Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi troops are trying to push militants out of rocket range of the Green Zone.

The flare-up followed months of declining attacks, especially in Sunni areas of central and western Iraq. Thousands of Sunni tribesmen broke with al-Qaida in Iraq and joined with U.S. and Iraqi troops to fight the terror movement.

But the explosion of violence in the south underlined warnings by the U.S. military that the security gains were reversible. It also illustrated the complexity of Iraq, where numerous religious sects and ethnic groups still compete for power.

Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said a total of 82 militants, 36 civilians and 37 soldiers had been killed since March 16 in fighting in Baghdad, mostly in Sadr City.

Al-Moussawi also announced that gunmen in Baghdad's northern neighborhood of Kazimiyah — the site of Baghdad's most prominent Shiite religious shrine — have three days to hand in their weapons.

But police in several cities in southern Iraq say few Shiite militants have given up their guns and that most are awaiting orders from al-Sadr to resume attacks.

In Basra, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf confirmed that 1,000 Iraqi security troopers had "failed to carry out their duties" during last month's crackdown and would face disciplinary action.

The failure of Iraqi troops to crush the militias has raised fresh doubts about the ability of the Iraqis to take over their own security so U.S.-led forces can go home.

In other violence Tuesday, Iraqi police said a roadside bomb struck a minibus near Balad Ruz, northeast of Baghdad, killing at least six morning commuters and wounding 10 others. Gunmen also attacked the home of a U.S.-allied Sunni tribal leader near Baqouba, 30 miles north of Baghdad, killing him and three of his sons, police said.

———

Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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