By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 26, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 25 -- Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his millions of followers Friday to continue observing a fragile cease-fire and not attack Iraqi troops, a move apparently designed to stave off a bloody confrontation with the government.
In a statement read at Friday prayers in the capital's Sadr City district and also posted on his Web site, Sadr clarified that his threat last week to declare an "open war until liberation" applied only to the U.S.-led coalition and not to the Iraqi government.
"We mean a war against the occupier, nothing else, as there is no war between us and our brothers the Iraqis, regardless of their affiliation, race or sect," Sadr said.
The remarks by Sadr, a fervently nationalist Shiite cleric, appeared aimed at lowering tensions between his movement and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who launched an offensive last month against Shiite militias, including Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Aides to Sadr have asserted that the offensive, which started in the southern city of Basra and spread to Sadr City, is an effort to cripple the Sadrist movement before provincial elections in the fall.
Despite Sadr's conciliatory statement, Maliki said the government would continue military operations against the group unless it meets conditions that the militia is highly unlikely to accept. Those conditions include surrendering weapons and handing over all wanted people, according to the Associated Press.
"I do not negotiate with any outlaw armed group, not the Mahdi Army nor the Islamic Army [a Sunni insurgent group] nor any other group, because this contradicts the principles of the state," Maliki said in an interview broadcast on al-Arabiya, the AP reported.
In his statement, Sadr warned Iraqi soldiers and police officers not to work with U.S. troops. "You should not intervene on the side of the occupier," he said. "We want to liberate you and your land from the desecration of the occupier."
The extension of the eight-month-old cease-fire came as a relief to U.S. officials, who credit security improvements in Iraq over the past year largely to the decision to freeze the Mahdi Army. Sadr had earlier threatened to end the freeze if the offensive was not halted, but on Friday he told his followers, "Continue in your patience."
As the statement was read over loudspeakers in Sadr City, U.S. military officials announced that 10 fighters had been killed overnight in the area, where U.S. and Iraqi troops have been engaged in clashes with fighters tied to Sadr. The military identified the fighters as "criminals," a term it uses to refer to Iranian-backed splinter groups disobeying Sadr's cease-fire order.
In Basra, police said masked gunmen killed a journalist working for a television station run by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the Sadrist movement's chief political rivals. Police identified him as Jassim al-Batat, 38, a cameraman with al-Nakheel television, who was gunned down on his way to work in nearby Qurnah.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Aahad Ali in Basra and Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim, Naseer Nouri and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.