- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

BAGHDAD — Cabinet ministers loyal to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr quit the government yesterday, weakening the U.S.-backed prime minister and raising fears that Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militia might confront American U.S. troops again.

The political drama was not likely to bring down Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, but it highlighted growing demands among Iraqi politicians and voters that a timetable be set for a U.S. troop withdrawal — the reason Sheik al-Sadr gave for the resignations.

The departure of the six ministers also was likely to feed public perception that Mr. al-Maliki is dependent on U.S. support, a position he spent months trying to avoid.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of seven more American service members: three soldiers and two Marines yesterday and two soldiers on Saturday.

In the northern city of Mosul, a university dean, a professor, a policeman’s son and 13 soldiers died in attacks bearing the signs of al Qaeda in Iraq. Nationwide, at least 51 persons were killed or found dead, and the U.S. military reported two soldiers slain in Baghdad.

In an appearance with families of military veterans, President Bush said he had spoken with Mr. al-Maliki. “He said, ‘Please thank the people in the White House for their sacrifices, and we will continue to work hard to be an ally in this war on terror,’ ” Mr. Bush said.

White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Sheik al-Sadr’s decision to pull his allies from the 37-member Cabinet did not mean Mr. al-Maliki would lose his majority in parliament.

“I’d remind you that Iraq’s system of government is a parliamentary democracy, and it’s different from our system. So coalitions and those types of parliamentary democracies can come and go,” she said.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to Mr. al-Maliki, said new Cabinet ministers would be named “within the next few days” and that the prime minister planned to recruit independents not affiliated with any political group. The nominees will need parliament’s approval.

The Mahdi’s Army, the military wing of Sheik al-Sadr’s political organization, put down its weapons and went underground before the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown began in Baghdad on Feb. 14.

Although dozens of the militia’s commanders were arrested in the clampdown, Sheik al-Sadr kept his militia from fighting back, apparently out of loyalty to Mr. al-Maliki, who was elected prime minister with Sheik al-Sadr’s help.

With the political link severed, there are signs Sheik al-Sadr’s pledge to control the militia might be broken as well. Forty-two victims of sectarian killings were found in Baghdad over the past two days, after a dramatic fall in such slayings in recent weeks. U.S. and Iraqi officials have blamed much sectarian bloodshed on Shi’ite death squads associated with the Mahdi’s Army.

A week ago, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall to U.S. troops, Sheik al-Sadr sent tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets in a peaceful demonstration in two Shi’ite holy cities. Activists burned and ripped U.S. flags and demanded that the U.S.set a date for leaving Iraq.

“I ask God to provide the Iraqi people with an independent government, far from [U.S.] occupation, that does all it can to serve the people,” Sheik al-Sadr said after the Cabinet resignations.

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