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In Iraq, Reprisals Embolden Militias

A funeral procession for victims of Thursday's killings passes the wreckage of a car bombed Friday in Sadr City.
A funeral procession for victims of Thursday's killings passes the wreckage of a car bombed Friday in Sadr City. (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)

Later, in an address after the midday prayer, members of Sadr's political party denounced the U.S. military, saying its presence was the reason for Iraq's escalating violence. They demanded a U.S. withdrawal or, at least, a timetable for the troops to leave, a demand echoed by Sadr in his Friday sermon at his mosque in the southern city of Kufa.

In previous periods of tension, Sadr loyalists have threatened to walk out of the government. Still, the current climate is unlike anything Iraq has experienced since the invasion. The attacks on Sadr City appeared to embolden Sadr and his followers as they try to capitalize on Thursday's carnage, which Shiite leaders, including Maliki, have blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents.

As long as such attacks continue, and as long as Iraqi security forces are ineffective in providing security, Sadr can justify the existence of his Mahdi Army militia.

"If the prime minister does not give up his intention to meet Bush the criminal in Amman, we will suspend our membership at the council of representatives and the government," Salih al-Ighaeli, head of Sadr's bloc in parliament, told a solemn crowd gathered on the street in front of Sadr's headquarters.

Ali Adeeb, a member of parliament and close Maliki aide, said the Sadr camp was trying to apply pressure tactics, but that the meeting would take place as planned.

The meeting between Bush and Maliki comes at a politically sensitive moment for both leaders. Bush is under pressure from Democrats who have won control of both the House and Senate to come up with a viable strategy to tamp down Iraq's violence and open the way for U.S. troops to come home.

As the sectarian divide within his government widens, Maliki is under U.S. pressure to disarm the Shiite militias, a step the U.S. military believes is needed to tame the violence. But the very people who control the militias, such as Sadr, are key political figures in Maliki's government, capable of causing his downfall.

Friday's reprisal attacks underscore how powerful the Mahdi Army and other militias have become in Iraq, operating above the law, spreading violence even under an indefinite 24-hour lockdown of the capital.

By Friday evening, the attacks were still unfolding. With no other alternative, many Sunnis were hoping for the intervention of U.S. forces.

"Up till now we are waiting for the American forces, and they haven't shown up yet," said Salman al-Zobaye, imam of al-Hashab mosque, in a telephone interview. An attack on the mosque by Shiite militiamen killed four guards.

Throughout Friday, rumors of new atrocities committed against Sunnis floated across Baghdad, including one in which six Sunnis were doused with kerosene and torched to death in Hurriyah. But two local imams, in an interview, denied such an attack took place.

But there was no shortage of confirmed incidents. In Hurriyah, militiamen Friday morning expelled Sunni families who were living near tea warehouses, and more than 90 Sunni families received letters threatening them if they did not leave their houses within 72 hours, authorities said.

In the Amiriyah neighborhood, Sunnis started to form neighborhood militias under the guidance of local clerics to protect themselves. By Friday evening, 25 volunteers signed up, and those without weapons were handed AK-47 rifles, residents said.

By nightfall, the imams of mosques in three Sunni neighborhoods -- Ghazaliya, Amiriyah and Adhamiyah made a joint announcement to their followers.

"We would like to ask you to take care and be careful for the next hours of tonight," they said. "Open fire toward any gunman who enters the city, such as the Mahdi Army, except the Americans, because they will come to protect the people from the death squads and guard the neighborhood."

The imams gave one more piece of advice to their followers: Open fire on any members of the mostly Shiite police forces. What happened in Hurriyah, the imams alleged, was done with their help.

Staff writer Nancy Trejos and special correspondents Naseer Mehdawi, Saad al-Izzi, Waleed Saffar, Salih Dehema and other Washington Post special correspondents in Iraq contributed to this report.

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