- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suffered a blow yesterday when lawmakers loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced their withdrawal from the Shi’ite bloc in parliament.

Elsewhere, an al Qaeda front group threatened to assassinate Sunni leaders who “stained the reputations” of their people by supporting Americans, and announced a Ramadan offensive in the memory of slain al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.

The pullout by the al Sadr group leaves the al-Maliki government 30 seats short of a majority in the 275-member parliament, although it can likely count on support from independent Shi’ites who hold 30 seats and some minor parties.

The al-Sadr decision, announced in Najaf, is likely to further complicate U.S.-backed efforts to win parliamentary approval of power-sharing legislation — including an oil bill and an easing of curbs that prevent former supporters of now-deceased dictator Saddam Hussein from getting back their government jobs.

The decision will also sharpen the power struggle among armed Shi’ite groups in the south, which includes major Shi’ite religious shrines and much of the country’s vast oil resources.

The al-Sadr group had been threatening to bolt the Shi’ite alliance for several days. But tensions rose after arrest warrants were issued against group officials in Karbala in connection with last month’s Shi’ite factional fighting there.

The warrants, which were made public yesterday, angered the al-Sadr supporters, who said the government was provoking them despite recent gestures by the firebrand cleric, including a six-month halt to military operations by his Mahdi Army militia.

The threat against Sunni leaders came from the Islamic State of Iraq, which claimed responsibility for the assassination Thursday of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the mastermind of the Sunni Arab revolt against al Qaeda in Anbar province. President Bush met Mr. Abu Risha at a U.S. base in Anbar this month and praised his courage.

In a Web posting, the Islamic State said it had formed “special security committees” to track and “assassinate the tribal figures, the traitors, who stained the reputations of the real tribes by submitting to the soldiers of the Crusade” and Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.

“We will publish lists of names of the tribal figures to scandalize them in front of our blessed tribes,” the statement added.

The Sunni revolt that Mr. Abu Risha spearheaded has led to a dramatic improvement in security in Anbar, and the decline in violence in Ramadi and other cities in the province has been one of the major success stories for the U.S. mission in Iraq.

A prominent Sunni sheik said the province’s leaders would not be intimidated by al Qaeda threats and would continue efforts to drive the terrorist movement from their communities.

“We, as tribesmen, will act against the al Qaeda, and those standing behind it who do not want us to put an end to it,” Ali Hatem al-Suleiman said.

In a second statement, the purported head of the Islamic State, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, said he was “honored to announce” a new Ramadan offensive in memory of Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq killed last year in a U.S. air strike.

Hours after the announcement yesterday, a car bomb exploded in a mostly Shi’ite area of southwest Baghdad, killing at least 11 persons lined up to buy bread at a bakery. Two of the dead were children, police said.

The blast occurred at the start of iftar, the evening meal at which Muslims break their dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast. The bloodshed was a blow to government hopes that a peaceful Ramadan would demonstrate the success of the seven-month operation in the capital.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military said a soldier from the Army’s Task Force Marne was killed and four were wounded the day before when a bomb exploded near their foot patrol.

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