- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister has stopped protecting Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia because U.S. intelligence convinced him that the group was infiltrated by death squads whose actions were leaving him isolated, two officials said yesterday.

In a desperate bid to fend off an all-out U.S. offensive, the radical anti-American cleric on Friday ordered the 30 lawmakers and six Cabinet ministers under his control to end their nearly two-month boycott of parliament. They were back at their jobs yesterday.

Sheik al-Sadr already had ordered his militia fighters not to display their weapons. They have not, however, ceded control of the formerly mixed neighborhoods that they captured by killing Sunnis or forcing them to abandon their homes and businesses.

The U.S. death toll from Saturday climbed to 25, as the military reported yesterday that six more troops had died that day, the deadliest in two years.

The latest military reports said that four soldiers and a Marine had died during combat Saturday in Anbar province and that one soldier was killed in a roadside bombing northeast of Baghdad.

Nineteen of the deaths were reported Saturday: 12 in a Black Hawk helicopter crash, five in an attack on a security meeting in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala and two in roadside bomb attacks elsewhere. It was the third highest one-day toll of the war.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s turnaround on the Mahdi Army was surprising. As recently as Oct. 31, he had intervened to end a U.S. blockade of Sadr City, the Shi’ite enclave in Baghdad that is the militia’s headquarters. The group has been held responsible for much of the sectarian bloodshed that has turned the capital into a battle zone in the past year.

Sometime between Oct. 31 and Nov. 30, when the prime minister met President Bush in Amman, Jordan, Mr. al-Maliki began to believe the U.S. intelligence reports and other evidence about the militia, the two government officials said.

“Al-Maliki realized he couldn’t keep defending the Mahdi Army because of the information and evidence that the armed group was taking part in the killings, displacing people and violating the state’s sovereignty,” said one official.

Both he and a second government official who confirmed the account refused to be identified by name.

“The Americans don’t act on rumors but on accurate intelligence. There are many intelligence agencies acting on the ground, and they know what’s going on,” said the second official, confirming the Americans had given Mr. al-Maliki overwhelming evidence about the Mahdi Army’s deep involvement in the sectarian slaughter.

Earlier this month, Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki separately announced a new security drive to cut off the sectarian violence in the capital and surrounding regions.

Mr. Bush announced that an additional 21,500 U.S. troops would be sent to Iraq, and Mr. al-Maliki promised a similar number of forces, who will take the lead in the overall operation.

Iraq’s Special Forces Command division has teamed with the Americans since late last year for a series of pinpoint attacks in which at least five top Mahdi Army figures have been killed or captured.

The neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep, expected to begin in earnest by next month, will target Sunni insurgents, al Qaeda in Iraq and its allied militant bands as well as Shi’ite militias, such as the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade.

The latter is the Iranian-trained military wing of Iraq’s most power Shi’ite political group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The first government official said Mr. al-Maliki’s message was blunt.

“He told the sheik that the activities of both the Sadrist politicians and the militia have inflamed hatred among neighboring Sunni Arab states that have been complaining bitterly to the Americans,” the official said.

Sunni Muslims are the majority sect in the key Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

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