By Amit R. Paley and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 20, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 19 -- Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened Saturday to launch an all-out war against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government if it continues a widespread crackdown on his followers.
In a statement brimming with his most bellicose language in months, Sadr said he was issuing a "final warning" to the government to end the campaign against Shiite militias that has cost hundreds of lives since it began last month. If not, Sadr said, he would declare an "open war until liberation."
A full-blown uprising by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia would be a major setback to the security improvements in Iraq over the past year, credited largely to his cease-fire order last summer. The Mahdi Army, which waged two bloody rebellions against U.S. troops in 2004, has shown in the past how quickly it can gather thousands of fighters.
"Do you want a third uprising?" Sadr said in the statement.
The warning came as Iraqi and U.S. troops continued their offensive against Sadrist strongholds with ground operations and airstrikes that killed at least a dozen people Friday night and Saturday in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the campaign last month in Basra with the stated aim of eliminating militias and gangs, though most of the fighting appeared to focus on Sadrists. Maliki demanded that Sadr dismantle the Mahdi Army militia as a condition of being permitted to participate in provincial elections in the fall.
Sadr repeatedly urged his followers not to fight back, calling the offensive an attempt to weaken a rival Shiite party before the elections. His aides have accused his chief political foes -- Maliki's Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq -- of human rights abuses against Sadrists.
"The government is fighting them, shedding their blood, taking their women as hostages and imprisoning their families," Sadr said in the statement. "What mistake have the followers made to escape the injustice of Saddam only to fall under the yoke of assassinations?"
Sadr's statement was posted on his Web site just before 10 p.m. The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, was traveling abroad and could not be reached. Other senior Iraqi officials said hours later that they had not seen the statement and would not comment.
The U.S. military said it hoped that Sadr, who has been bringing his movement further into the political mainstream, would decide not to end the cease-fire he declared eight months ago. "If Sadr declared an open war, we don't see that as a preferable course of action for anyone," said Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
Sadr's statement did not give a deadline for the government to respond. Nevertheless, rumors swirled among Sadr's followers about when fighting might begin.
Sheik Ali al-Suweidy, a spokesman for the Sadr office in Basra, said the government was expected to answer within 14 days. "We are awaiting his order," he said of Sadr.
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.