Iraq's Sadr Faults U.S. For Poverty, Violence

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 31, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 30 -- Coming from Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, long known for his virulent anti-American sentiments, Friday's rebuke of the United States for instigating four years of poverty and violence in Iraq was nothing out of character.

Read at mosques in the southern Iraqi city of Kufa and in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum named for his father, Sadr's statement excoriated America for creating an Iraq that "is still without water, electricity, fuel, security or peace" and instructed his followers to "rise up" in support of Iraqi resistance to the "occupiers." Sadr called for a massive demonstration in the holy city of Najaf on April 9, the fourth anniversary of the day Baghdad fell.

But these days any statement by Sadr is read with a magnifying glass because the intentions of the author and his feared Mahdi Army militia have perhaps never been quite as inscrutable. U.S. officials insist that Sadr has fled to Iran, while his subordinates assert he remains in Najaf. Since the start of a new security offensive seven weeks ago, buoyed by the influx of thousands of new American and Iraqi soldiers into the capital, the prevailing narrative has been that Sadr's forces have laid down their weapons or fled the country, playing wait-and-see until he decides how to react. And with Sadr out of the country, U.S. officials say, his militia has shown signs of splintering into factions beyond his control.

"I think any organization that doesn't have leadership is bound to atrophy," said a senior U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad. "The reduction in violence has been rather significant."

But in the past week, Iraqi officials have warned that they see an increase in Mahdi Army violence, especially trademark reprisal killings, following a spate of car bombings and suicide attacks in mainly Shiite areas.

"Sadr's militia froze their activities for a while, but we have seen since about 10 days ago that they have restarted their violence," said Omar al-Jubouri, a Sunni adviser to Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.

Other Iraqi officials, including some Shiites, say increased militia violence has occurred in the capital along Palestine Street, adjacent to Sadr City, along Haifa Street just west of the Tigris River, and in the neighborhoods of Jamiyah, Sadiyah and Shaab.

In a Pentagon briefing on Friday, Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero said that during the first six weeks of the security plan, civilian deaths have dropped by 30 percent compared with the previous six-week period, but when talking about the Mahdi Army, he observed that "we have seen some indicators of some increased activity, but it's a very dynamic situation and I'd be reluctant to draw a conclusion this early."

The U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is speculation that the recent series of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone may have been directed by Mahdi Army members.

"It makes sense that they'd be shooting at us now," the official said.

An Iraqi police official said American helicopters fired on Shiite militiamen east of Sadr City in the Sabeh district on Friday, killing 16 people and wounding 13 others. But Lt. Col. Josslyn L. Aberle said she had no reports of such violence.

U.S.-led forces said they captured another suspected trafficker of the armor-piercing explosives known as explosively formed penetrators. The arrest of the unnamed suspect occurred Friday morning during an operation in Sadr City, the U.S. military said.

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