Sadr Threatens Attacks on U.S. Troops if Accord Passes

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

BAGHDAD, Nov. 14 -- Radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr threatened Friday to resume attacks on U.S. forces if they remain in Iraq, as envisioned in a draft security agreement that would allow them to stay until the end of 2011.

Sadr's statement appeared aimed at upping the ante before a cabinet meeting Sunday at which ministers are expected to decide whether to support the accord.

The cleric's Mahdi Army militia battled U.S. forces off and on from 2004 until last spring, when fierce clashes erupted in the southern city of Basra and in the Baghdad district of Sadr City. Since then, his fighters have largely observed a cease-fire, and Sadr has said he wants to turn most of his militia into a religious and social movement.

He has kept a low profile in recent months and is believed to be in Iran, according to U.S. military officials.

In a statement read on his behalf at Friday prayers in Sadr City and the southern city of Kufa, Sadr repeated his demand that U.S. troops leave Iraq "without establishing any bases or signing the agreement."

If the troops stayed, he said, he would "support the insurgents," adding, "Our weapons would be aimed only against the occupiers, wherever they are" and not against Iraqis.

A crowd of hundreds attending the service chanted, "Get out, get out, occupiers!"

The bilateral accord would give Iraqi authorities more control over security operations and remove most American combat troops by the end of 2011. It would replace a U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. presence, which expires at the end of this year.

But Ahmed al-Masoudi, a spokesman for the Sadr followers in parliament, said the fighters were ready to take up arms if the accord was signed.

"The Sadrists and all the Iraqi political parties tried to end the occupation of Iraq by using political and diplomatic means," Masoudi said. "If the agreement is signed, not only the Sadr movement will use arms but so will all the Iraqi resistance groups, both Shiite and Sunni."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has been noticeably silent about whether he supports the agreement, and furious lobbying has been going on ahead of the cabinet meeting, politicians say. The Iraqi defense, interior and finance ministers have argued in favor of the accord, while some of Maliki's Shiite rivals have raised objections in recent weeks.

Political parties are carefully gauging how their vote on the accord could affect them in provincial elections scheduled for January.

The U.S. government recently agreed to some last-minute changes demanded by the Iraqi cabinet, but rejected others.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said in a statement Friday that he had discussed the accord the previous night with Maliki and agreed with him that it needed to be amended further. He called on President Bush to "help the Iraqis, as he did many times before." The statement did not specify what additional changes Talabani wanted.

If the cabinet approves the agreement, it will go to parliament, which must ratify it before it can take effect. The Bush administration has said the accord does not need U.S. Senate approval.

Supporters of Sadr hold 30 seats in the 275-seat parliament. In the statement read on his behalf Friday, he also called for a massive prayer meeting and peaceful demonstration next Friday in downtown Baghdad. His movement has led frequent protests against the agreement in recent months.

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company