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Sadr Warns Of 'Open War' If Crackdown Is Not Halted

Haider Abu Abdullah, 33, a Mahdi Army company commander in Kufa, said he had been told that the government had only 24 hours to respond. "The entire Iraqi people, including the Sadr movement, will be harmed after this open war, because no one will be able to count how many people will get killed and injured," he said.

Leewa Smeisim, the head of Sadr's political bureau, said that the cleric had tried to avoid fighting but that the government had taken advantage of his cease-fire by carrying out mass arrests and executions, particularly in the southern cities of Basra, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah and Karbala.

The threat of Shiite-on-Shiite violence came as the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq called for a new, month-long wave of attacks on U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.

In an audio message posted Saturday on an insurgent Web site, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, believed to be the group's leader, dubbed the campaign the "attack of righteousness" and said it would be a "celebration" of the 4,000 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq.

In Basra, Iraqi officials said that they had taken control of two of the last remaining neighborhoods held by the Mahdi Army. The operation began at 6 a.m. when U.S. and British forces attacked rocket and mortar sites in the area. Iraqi forces then moved into the neighborhoods, Hayaniyah and Jamiat.

"We confiscated many cars with no license plates that were used in kidnappings and assassinations," said Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, the Basra police chief. "And we found thousands of roadside bombs in Hayaniyah."

Faiz Mohammed, 41, who lives in Hayaniyah, said, "We feel safer now."

In a news conference, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq said his government supported Maliki's recent Basra offensive, saying the Iraqi government has a right to target "criminal groups." But the ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, said the U.S. military operations in Sadr City were ill-conceived.

"The American forces bombed the homes of innocent people," he said. "Many people are also being forced to leave their homes." The U.S. military said it targets fighters, not civilians.

Qomi's remarks are sure to renew speculation about the ties between Iran and both the Sadrists and the Maliki-led government. His strong endorsement of the Basra operation suggests that Iran may be choosing sides in the Shiite-on-Shiite fighting. It may also bolster the view of some Iraqis that Iran, which the United States has accused of supplying Sadrists with weapons, no longer supports Sadr as strongly as it once did.

Sadr's statement Saturday, however, made it clear that tensions between Sadr and Maliki are about to reach a head.

"This is the very last threat," said Salah al-Obaidi, a top aide to Sadr.

Special correspondents Aahad Ali in Basra, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Zaid Sabah, Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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