Monday, April 9, 2007

BAGHDAD — Radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, ending weeks of tacit cooperation with American forces, called for renewed efforts to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq on the eve of a major anti-American rally in Najaf today.

Thousands of supporters, mainly Shi’ites, were streaming into the central Iraqi city for the rally, according to reports from Najaf, while Iraqi authorities closed the capital to all vehicle traffic during today’s anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported the deaths of 10 American troops, six of them killed yesterday in areas in and around Baghdad.

U.S. military leaders said they would be closely watching the rally in Najaf, where automobile traffic also has been banned and buses will be provided to transport protesters to the city center, the Associated Press quoted police spokesman Col. Ali Jiryo as saying.

“We have response forces on standby,” said Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, battalion commander of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Stryker Brigade, part of the military’s rapid-reaction force for Iraq. “We are prepared to go anywhere. My bag is packed. My bag is always packed.”

Even before the rally, defiant handbills appeared in the shrine city bearing Sheik al-Sadr’s official seal, the Associated Press reported. The warning appears to signal an end to eight weeks of tacit cooperation with the U.S. military, which has permitted a reduction in Shi’ite militia violence under the Baghdad Security Plan.

“You, the Iraqi army and police forces, don’t walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your archenemy,” said the statement, which also urged the cleric’s followers to end sectarian infighting and turn all their efforts on the Americans.

“God has ordered you to be patient in front of your enemy, and unify your efforts against them — not against the sons of Iraq,” the statement said.

Despite the appeal, some four dozen Iraqis were killed or found dead yesterday, including 17 obvious victims of sectarian executions.

Col. Huggins said U.S. forces would defend themselves against any attacks inspired by Sheik al-Sadr’s message, but would not be provoked to overreact.

Over the past two weeks, there has been a steady pattern of increased attacks, including car bombs, against American fixed sites in Baghdad by both Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militia and Sunni forces allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq, according to a military official.

“We know they are looking for weaknesses in the defenses and patterns that are targetable,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

He said the Baghdad curfew was aimed at preventing any eruption of violence in the capital as well as the movement of car bombs.

Roads leading to Najaf from the mainly Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad were clogged yesterday with hundreds of buses loaded with supporters of Sheik al-Sadr.

“It will be all the Shi’ite people,” said one Shi’ite man close to the Mahdi’s Army. “In the Friday prayers at the mosque, they said we need to kick out the invaders and each one is to take the Iraqi flag in hand to say we are one country.”

One American observer said the crowds appeared disciplined, contradicting the ragtag reputation that the Mahdi’s Army has earned over the past four years.

Iraqis close to the militia say its members have been to Iran for training, acquiring better weapons and better techniques.

Sheik al-Sadr reportedly has told his followers to wear civilian clothing rather than their signature black clothes, and to carry the Iraqi flag rather than the Shi’ite black banner. By Saturday, along one street in northeast Mansour known to be a Mahdi’s Army stronghold, Iraqi flags were waving from every other lamppost.

“[Al-Sadr] is changing his strategy now. He is trying to turn the Mahdi militia into a true people’s militia,” said Hassan, a secular Shi’ite who lives in a mixed neighborhood. He said until now the only power the Mahdi’s Army has had is the power to kill and intimidate.

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