By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 8 -- Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric whose militia has been battling Iraqi and U.S. soldiers over the past two weeks, said Tuesday he was calling off a million-man rally because he feared it would lead to further bloodshed.
The cancellation of the demonstration, which was to be held in the capital Wednesday on the five-year anniversary of the city's fall to U.S. troops, came as fierce fighting raged between Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and U.S. and Iraqi troops.
At least one U.S. soldier and 16 Shiite fighters were killed in Sadr's stronghold in northeastern Baghdad on Tuesday, the U.S. military said. Twelve U.S. soldiers have been killed across the country since Sunday.
Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq established checkpoints that blocked hundreds of Sadrists from reaching Baghdad. Sadr's followers accused the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of trying to prevent the planned rally from taking place.
"Is this the democracy and freedom that Maliki's government promised to provide to the people?" asked Abbas Ali, 25, of Diwaniyah, as he stood outside a checkpoint in the southern city of Hilla after national police prevented him from traveling to the capital.
The police were acting on orders from the Interior Ministry to block all men ages 16 to 35 from passing, according to Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, the Babil provincial police spokesman. Iraqi officials said the procedures were intended to maintain security, not to prevent Sadrists from rallying.
The developments accompanied growing tensions between Sadr and Maliki that have plunged Iraq deeper into chaos since Maliki launched a military campaign against what he called "criminal gangs" last month in the southern city of Basra.
The Sadrists contend that the offensive is an attempt by Maliki to weaken a rival Shiite political group ahead of provincial elections scheduled for October.
"We are sure that the campaign against us is being done because some political parties want us to fight and lose our popularity before the elections," said Salah al-Obaidi, a spokesman for Sadr. "We want to calm the situation and stop this from happening."
Ali al-Dabbagh, chief spokesman for the Iraqi government, said that Maliki is not acting for partisan reasons and that his threat to bar Sadrists from the elections if they do not abolish the militia is necessary for security.
"They cannot perform as politicians and at the same time have their own private army," Dabbagh said.
Sadr ordered his militia to lay down its weapons last August after fighting by his followers in Karbala turned public opinion against his group. But at a news conference in Baghdad on Tuesday, Obaidi read a statement from Sadr reiterating warnings that the order could be lifted if the government offensive continues.
"If the public interest requires the lifting of the freeze to apply our goals, doctrine, faith, principles and patriotism, we shall do it later," Sadr said.
In a move that may defuse some of the tension between the Sadrists and the government, Maj. Gen. Raid Shakir Jawdat, chief of the Karbala police force, announced late Tuesday night that 428 Sadrists detained in the past few weeks would be released because of insufficient evidence against them.
Shiite militants in northeastern Baghdad continued Tuesday to direct rocket and mortar fire at the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of the U.S. military and the Iraqi government. Qassim Attah, an Iraqi military spokesman, said at least 145 rockets and mortar rounds have been launched in the past two weeks, killing 48 civilians.
The Iraqi government banned cars, motorcycles and bicycles from 5 a.m. Wednesday until midnight to prevent further violence on the anniversary of the city's fall. Also Tuesday, a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle fired a Hellfire rocket at a group of armed men with rocket-propelled grenades and a mortar tube, killing 10 of them and wounding two, the U.S. military said.
"We are targeting all the criminals who are ignoring Sadr's cease-fire pledge," said Maj. Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad. "We are doing and will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect the Iraqi people from these bad guys."
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Hilla and Najaf and Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi, Dalya Hassan and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.