- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

BAGHDAD — Militant Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resurfaced yesterday after nearly four months in hiding and demanded U.S. troops leave Iraq, a development likely to complicate U.S. efforts to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.

Hours later, the notorious leader of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in the city of Basra was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest him, police and the British military said, further enflaming tensions in the Shi’ite areas of southern Iraq.

While the call for a U.S. pullout was nothing new, Sheik al-Sadr also peppered his speech in the city of Kufa with nationalist overtones, criticizing the government for not providing services, appealing to his followers not to fight with Iraqi security forces and reaching out to Sunnis.

“To our Iraqi Sunni brothers, I say that the occupation sows dissension among us and that strength is unity and division is weakness,” he said. “I’m ready to cooperate with them in all fields.”

The U.S. military also announced yesterday the deaths of six U.S. soldiers, putting May on pace to be one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces here in years.

Sheik al-Sadr went underground — reportedly in Iran — at the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown on Baghdad 14 weeks ago. He also had ordered his militia off the streets to prevent conflict with U.S. forces.

His return to the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf appeared to be an effort by the 33-year-old firebrand cleric to regain control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting, and to take advantage of the illness of a Shi’ite rival. There had also been some indication that his absence from the national arena was costing him political support.

Sheik al-Sadr drove in a long motorcade from Najaf to its sister city of Kufa to deliver an anti-American sermon to 6,000 chanting supporters at the main mosque.

“No, no for Satan. No, no for America. No, no for the occupation. No, no for Israel,” the glowering, black-turbaned cleric chanted in a call and response with the crowd.

“We demand the withdrawal of the occupation forces, or the creation of a timetable for such a withdrawal,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow with a white cloth as temperatures hovered at 113 degrees. “I call upon the Iraqi government not to extend the occupation even for a single day.”

The extension of an olive branch to Sunnis, the former rulers of Iraq, put him at least verbally on the side of those seeking sectarian reconciliation.

Sheik al-Sadr did not address his reasons for returning. During his absence, his militia appeared to have split into a faction calling itself the “noble Mahdi Army” and more extremist elements that it accuses of killing Sunnis and embezzling funds.

In addition to trying to rein in the force, Sheik al-Sadr is also thought to be honing plans to consolidate political gains and foster ties with Iran — and possibly trying to capitalize on the illness of Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and went to Iran for treatment.

Sheik al-Sadr’s associates say his strategy rests in part on his belief that Washington will soon start reducing troop strength, leaving a hole in Iraq’s security and political power structure that he can fill.

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe expressed hope that Sheik al-Sadr’s reappearance signaled he wanted “to play a positive role inside Iraq.”

“He has an opportunity to be a part of the political reconciliation process. We’ll see if he and his followers participate,” he said.

Later yesterday, the Mahdi Army received a blow when its Basra leader, Wissam al-Waili, 23, also known as Abu Qadir, was shot and killed along with his brother and two aides during a gunbattle with British and Iraqi troops, police and the British military said.

The battle began about 4 p.m. during a raid to arrest Mr. al-Waili in Jumhoriyah, a middle-class, residential area in central Basra, police said. Mr. al-Waili and his three companions opened fire and were killed when the troops shot back, police said.

Several hours later, Mahdi Army militants broke into the home of a former top Iraqi officer in Basra, set one Humvee on fire and stole another.

Meanwhile, three U.S. soldiers were killed in roadside bombings in the capital and the surrounding areas, the military said yesterday. Two others were killed in explosions north of Baghdad, and a sixth soldier was hit by gunfire in Diyala province, the military said.

The killings raised the American death toll for the month to at least 88 through Thursday.

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