/ 8 April 2008

Iraq’s al-Sadr threatens to scrap ceasefire

Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened on Tuesday to end a truce he imposed on his militia last year, raising the prospect of worsening violence in Iraq just hours before top US officials testified on Iraq in Washington.

Al-Sadr urged his Mehdi Army to ”continue your jihad and resistance” against US forces, although he did not spell out if this was an explicit call for attacks on American soldiers.

His warning came a day after Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki threatened to bar al-Sadr’s movement from political life unless the anti-American cleric disbanded his militia.

Despite the more than seven-month-old ceasefire, al-Sadr’s followers have clashed with Iraqi troops and US forces in the south of the country and Baghdad in the past two weeks in the country’s worst violence since the first half of 2007.

”The Iraqi government should know that the Mehdi Army will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi people to provide all they need from security, stability and independence,” al-Sadr said in a statement. ”If it is required to lift the freeze [ceasefire] in order to carry out our goals, objectives, doctrines and religious principles and patriotism, we will do that later.”

The cleric also announced he was postponing a massive anti-US march planned for Wednesday in Baghdad — the fifth anniversary of the fall of the capital to American troops — for fear his followers would be attacked.

”I call those beloved Iraqi people who wish to demonstrate against the occupation to postpone their march, out of my fear for them and my concern to spare their blood,” al-Sadr said.

American and Iraqi troops clashed with gunmen in the cleric’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City for a third day running on Tuesday, part of an upsurge in fighting that is likely to colour two days of testimony to Congress by US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and top commander General David Petraeus.

An Iraqi cameraman working for Reuters in Sadr City was lightly wounded by shrapnel in what witnesses said was a US air strike in the slum.

Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, a US military spokesperson in Baghdad, said a total of four Hellfire missiles were fired at gunmen and mortar crews in Sadr City in three separate air strikes. He estimated 12 gunmen were killed.

A health official said 10 people were killed and 61 wounded.

Key to reduce violence

Before the eruption of fighting two weeks ago, the Mehdi Army ceasefire had been widely credited with helping reduce violence sharply across Iraq. Any formal scrapping of the truce could trigger widespread fighting with security forces and plunge Iraq back into a deadly spiral of sectarian violence.

One Mehdi Army leader in Sadr City said: ”This statement is a warning for the government. If it does not stop killing the sons of the city and the Mehdi Army, then Moqtada will issue a statement to announce the end of the ceasefire.”

The US has about 158 000 troops in Iraq and plans to pull out five combat brigades, or roughly 20 000 soldiers, by July under plans announced last year.

Petraeus, calling the gains in Iraq ”fragile and reversible”, told a Senate panel on Tuesday: ”I recommended to my chain of command that we continue the drawdown of the surge combat forces and that, upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation.”

Crocker told CNN television that a premature withdrawal would lead to violence not seen since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.

”As bad as it was in 2006, we were here. If we spiral into conflict again and we’re leaving, everybody knows we’re not coming back, so I think the gloves then come completely off,” Crocker said.

Renewed violence could spark calls for troop withdrawals and embolden Democrats in the US, who argue that the year-long ”surge”, which boosted US troop numbers in Iraq by about 30 000, has failed to yield a lasting peace.

Al-Sadr’s aides had said on Monday the cleric was ready to disband his militia if religious leaders demanded it. Al-Sadr has a history of pulling back unexpectedly from confrontation and then allowing his militia to show its strength.

Al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on the militia two weeks ago in the southern city of Basra, provoking widespread clashes.

That fighting ebbed just over a week ago when al-Sadr ordered the militia off the streets, but picked up again on Sunday with clashes around Sadr City. — Reuters