Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday threatened an ”open war” against the Iraqi government unless it halted a crackdown by Iraqi and United States security forces on his followers.
The spectre of a full-scale uprising by Sadr sharply raises the stakes in his confrontation with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has threatened to ban the anti-American cleric’s movement from political life unless he disbands his militia.
A rebellion by Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia — which has tens of thousands of fighters — could abruptly end a period of lower violence at a time when US forces are starting to leave Iraq.
”I’m giving the last warning and the last word to the Iraqi government — either it comes to its senses and takes the path of peace … or it will be [seen as] the same as the previous government,” Sadr said, referring to Saddam Hussein’s fallen regime, without elaborating.
”If they don’t come to their senses and curb the infiltrated militias, then we will declare an open war until liberation.”
Sadr’s movement accuses other Shi’ite parties of getting their militias into the Iraqi security forces, especially in southern Shi’ite Iraq where various factions are competing for influence in a region home to most of Iraq’s oil output.
Sadr launched two uprisings against US forces in 2004.
His movement then entered politics and backed Maliki’s rise to power in 2006. But the youthful Sadr split with Maliki, a fellow Shi’ite, a year ago when the prime minister refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
”Do you want a third uprising?” Sadr said, adding that he wanted Iraq’s Shi’ite clerical establishment to set a date for the departure of American troops.
In Sadr’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, one Mehdi Army commander said he was ”thrilled” about the statement.
”We will wait until tomorrow [Sunday] to see the response of the government. Otherwise they will see black days like they have never seen before in their life.”
Sadr’s threat could not come at a worse time. On Friday, US forces said they had intelligence suggesting Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda, pushed out of Baghdad and western Iraq last year, was plotting a return to the capital to stage major bomb attacks.
Rockets hit hospital
In Baghdad, police described battles between security forces and gunmen that began on Friday in Sadr City as among the heaviest in the capital since Maliki launched a crackdown on the Mehdi Army in the southern city of Basra late last month.
Police said 12 people had been killed in the Shi’ite slum. Hospitals said they received more than 130 wounded overnight.
Late on Saturday, Ali Bustan, head of the health directorate in the eastern section of Baghdad, said three rockets hit the Sadr Hospital in the slum. It was unclear if there were any casualties. The US military said it was not to blame.
Bustan said the bodies of three women had been brought in along with 40 wounded people following fresh clashes.
Maliki has threatened to ban Sadr’s movement from provincial elections this year if the cleric does not disband his militia.
In response, Sadr has threatened to formally scrap a ceasefire he imposed on the Mehdi Army last August, which has already been hanging by a thread given recent clashes.
In his statement, Sadr did not refer to the truce, but his spokesperson in the holy city of Najaf, Salah al-Ubaidi, said the cleric was not bluffing.
”We mean every word,” Ubaidi said.
Sadr issued his warning after Iraqi soldiers swooped on the Mehdi Army’s stronghold in Basra. Iraqi officials said they now controlled the bastion, known as the Hayaniya district.
The dawn raid by government troops there was backed by a thunderous bombardment by US warp lanes and British artillery.
Maliki’s initial crackdown on the militia in Basra last month was criticised by US commanders as poorly planned. — Reuters