- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mocked anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as a coward yesterday, hours after the radical leader threatened to declare war unless U.S. and Iraqi forces end a military crackdown on his followers.

Miss Rice, in the Iraqi capital to tout security gains and what she calls an emerging political consensus, said Sheik al-Sadr is content to issue threats and edicts from the safety of Iran, where he is studying. Sheik al-Sadr heads an unruly militia that was the main target of an Iraqi government assault in the oil-rich city of Basra last month, and his future role as a spoiler is an open question.

“I know he’s sitting in Iran,” Miss Rice said dismissively, when asked about Sheik al-Sadr’s latest threat to lift a self-imposed cease-fire with government and U.S. forces. “I guess it’s all-out war for anybody but him,” Miss Rice said. “I guess that’s the message; his followers can go to their deaths and he’s in Iran.”

In a statement on his official Web site, Sheik al-Sadr said, “We denounce the visit of U.S. secretary, asking the government to ban the entrance of the terrorists’ occupiers to our pure land.”

The statement asked Iraqis to express their opposition to the visit through peaceful means.

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.

In a warning posted Saturday on his Web site, Sheik al-Sadr said he tried to defuse tensions by declaring the truce in August, only to see the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki respond by closing his offices and “resorting to assassinations.”

He accused the government of selling out to the Americans and branding his followers as criminals.

“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.”

Miss Rice praised Mr. al-Maliki for confronting Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which had a choke hold on Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. The assault was Mr. al-Maliki’s most-decisive act by far against Sheik al-Sadr, a fellow Shi’ite and once a political patron. Kurdish and Sunni politicians, including a chief rival, have since rallied to Mr. al-Maliki, and the Bush administration argues he could emerge stronger from what had appeared to be a military blunder.

During five days of heavy fighting last month, Iraqi troops struggled against militiamen, particularly the Mahdi Army. The ill-prepared Iraqi military was plagued by desertions and poor organization and U.S. troops had to take over in some instances. The offensive was inconclusive, with Iran helping mediate a truce.


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