Iraq cleric plans new armed group to fight US forces

Iraq’s hard-line Shi’ite leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, said on Friday he plans to form a new wing of his powerful movement to battle United States forces, allowing other members to focus on social issues.

In a statement issued to his nearly 60 000-strong Mehdi Army militia, the anti-American cleric said the fight against US troops will now be waged only by the new group, while other members will “take on a social and religious role”.

“The resistance will be carried out exclusively by a special group that I will announce later,” Sadr said in a statement that was read out at mosques in the holy Shi’ite town of Kufa.

“We will keep resisting the occupier until the liberation [of Iraq] or [our] martyrdom.”

However, Sadr also urged others in his militia to lay down their arms to work on building social, cultural and religious services in Iraq’s predominant Shi’ite community.

“Brothers, you should follow this recommendation, and anyone who does not obey will not be with me.”

Sadr’s spokesperson, Salah al-Obeidi, said the move was aimed at building a more comprehensive movement that could better serve its followers.

“Sadr’s view is to take the Mehdi Army on the path of social and cultural activities, far from the military. He wants to reform it and limit its responsibility,” he said.

The announcement came amid controversy in Iraq and in neighbouring Iran over negotiations between Baghdad and Washington for a new pact to cover the US military presence when a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.

“We refuse the current agreement. Any kind of American troops base inside Iraq is bad for the Iraqi future,” Obeidi said.

US President George Bush and Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed in principle last November to sign a Status of Forces Agreement by the end of July, but US demands have enraged various Iraqi political groups.

American demands include creating permanent military bases, control of the nation’s air space, as well as granting US troops and foreign private contractors continuing immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Maliki said in Amman that the negotiations were deadlocked because of concern the deal infringes Iraqi sovereignty.

Sadr, one of the strongest critics of the US military presence and of the planned pact, said his new group will direct its operations against US forces but will be banned from fighting Iraqis.

“This group will be professional and it will be the only group carrying arms that will be directed against the occupier.
It will be banned from using arms against any Iraqis.”

The Mehdi Army has often clashed with US forces since the March 2003 invasion that toppled the Sunni-led regime of Saddam Hussein.

In 2004, Sadr led two rebellions against American troops from the holy city of Najaf, which saw hundreds of his militiamen killed.

Last August he suspended Mehdi Army activities after allegations his fighters were engaged in a bloody battle in the Shi’ite city of Karbala during a major religious festival.

Since then, the Sadr group maintains the militia has not broken the ceasefire but its fighters have been involved in battles against US and Iraqi troops that erupted in late March in Baghdad and other Shi’ite regions.

Hundreds of people were killed in the clashes that broke out after Maliki ordered a crackdown on Shi’ite militias.

The US military had repeatedly accused the Mehdi Army, which is mainly dominant in Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City district, of killing Sunni Arabs during Iraq’s vicious sectarian conflict.

But since Sadr declared the ceasefire, the military has stopped accusing the militia directly.

It often claims that certain members of the militia who do not follow the cleric’s orders continue to indulge in criminal activities.

The military also alleges that these fighters are being trained, armed and funded by Iranian groups, charges denied by Tehran.—AFP

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