- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave a “final warning” to the Iraqi government yesterday to halt a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown against his followers or he would declare “open war until liberation.”

A full-blown uprising by Sheik al-Sadr, who led two rebellions against U.S.-led forces in 2004, could lead to a dramatic increase in violence in Iraq at a time when the Sunni extremist group al Qaeda in Iraq appears poised for new attacks after suffering severe blows last year.

Sheik al-Sadr’s warning appeared on his Web site as Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government claimed success in a new push against Shi’ite militants in the southern city of Basra. Fighting claimed 14 more lives in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shi’ite, has ordered Sheik al-Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army, Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite militia, or face a ban from politics.

In the statement, Sheik al-Sadr lashed back, accusing the government of selling out to the Americans and of branding his followers as criminals.

Sheik al-Sadr, who is thought to be in Iran, said he had tried to defuse tensions last August by declaring a unilateral truce, only to see the government respond by closing his offices and “resorting to assassinations.”

“So I am giving my final warning … to the Iraqi government … to take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people,” Sheik al-Sadr said. “If the government does not refrain … we will declare an open war until liberation.”

U.S. officials have acknowledged that Sheik al-Sadr’s truce was instrumental in reducing violence last year. But the truce is in tatters after Iraqi forces launched an offensive last month against “criminal gangs and militias” in the southern city of Basra.

The conflict spread rapidly to Baghdad, where Shi’ite militiamen based in Sadr City fired rockets at the U.S.-protected Green Zone, killing at least four Americans.

U.S. officials say many of the rockets fired at the Green Zone were manufactured in Iran.

The Iranians helped mediate a truce March 30, which eased clashes in Basra and elsewhere in the Shi’ite south. But fighting persisted in Baghdad.

The Americans are attempting to seal off much of Sadr City, home to an estimated 2.5 million people, and have used helicopter gunships and Predator drones to fire missiles at militiamen seeking refuge in the sprawling slum of northeast Baghdad.

At a press conference yesterday, Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad said his government supports the Iraqi move against “lawbreakers in Basra” but that the “insistence of the Americans to lay siege” to Sadr City “is a mistake.”

“Lawbreakers [in Basra] must be held accountable … but the insistence of the Americans to lay siege to millions of people in a specific area and then bombing them randomly from air and damaging property is not correct,” Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi said.

He warned that the American strategy in Sadr City “will lead to negative results, for which the Iraqi government must bear responsibility.”

At least 14 people were killed and 84 wounded in yesterday’s fighting in Sadr City, police and hospital officials said. Sporadic clashes were continuing after sundown, with gunmen darting through the streets, firing at Iraqi police and soldiers who have taken the lead in the fighting.

In Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers backed by British troops pushed their way into Hayaniyah, the local stronghold of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia.

As the operation got under way, British cannons and American warplanes pounded an empty field near Hayaniyah as a show of force “intended to demonstrate the firepower available to the Iraqi forces,” said British military spokesman Maj. Tom Holloway.

Last month, Iraqi troops met fierce resistance when they tried to enter Hayaniyah. Yesterday, however, Iraqi soldiers moved block by block, searching homes, seizing weapons and detaining suspects.

Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan said he expected the whole area to be secured by today. He said troops had detained a number of suspects.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Sunni Arab states to meet “their obligations” to neighboring Shi’ite-led Iraq now that it is cracking down on Shi’ite militias and improving security, Agence France-Presse reported.

“I think it’s fair to say that the neighbors could do more to live up to their obligations, because I do believe the Iraqis are beginning to live up to theirs,” Miss Rice told reporters en route today to talks with her Arab counterparts in Bahrain and Kuwait.

Recent attacks capped a violent week that has raised concerns that suspected Sunni insurgents are regrouping in the north. Yesterday, a Washington-based group that monitors Islamic extremists said al Qaeda in Iraq has announced a one-month offensive against U.S. troops.

The SITE group said the announcement was made on Web sites by the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who took over the extremist group after Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006.

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