- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Followers of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the biggest militia, said yesterday that they could widen the battles with the government — even asking supporters for blood donations to aid fighters injured during weeks of urban clashes.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who flew to Kuwait for a meeting today of Iraq’s neighbors, was expected to discuss ways they that can help his Shi”ite-led government as it confronts both a Shi’ite militia and Sunni extremists, including al Qaeda in Iraq.

“There are countries that support the political process and are opening embassies here. We need the others to open embassies here, too,” Mr. al-Maliki told reporters.

In Najaf, a top Sadrist spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi, warned that open warfare was a “strong possibility” if the government did not ease the pressure on Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

The government has demanded that Sheik al-Sadr disband the Mahdi Army or the Sadrists will not be allowed to run in provincial elections this fall.

Mr. al-Obeidi complained that government officials and Shi’ite intermediaries had offered “no serious proposals” for ending the confrontation and that “we are ready for all possibilities.”

Last weekend, Sheik al-Sadr, who is thought to be in Iran, threatened in a Web site statement to declare full-scale war on the U.S.-backed government if attacks on his followers continue.

The crisis began nearly a month ago when Mr. al-Maliki began a military offensive against the Mahdi Army and other Shi’ite militias in the southern port city of Basra.

Militiamen responded by shelling Baghdad’s U.S.-protected Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and offices of the Iraqi government. U.S. and Iraqi forces then laid siege to the Baghdad militia stronghold of Sadr City.

The daily clashes have raised fears that Sheik al-Sadr may formally scrap the unilateral truce that he declared last August — a move that American officials credit with helping dramatically reduce violence.

In Sadr City — a sprawling slum of 2.5 million people — mosques broadcast appeals yesterday for people to donate blood to help the hundreds who had been injured in the fighting. Residents contacted by telephone said many donors showed up at two hospitals in response to the call.

No major fighting was reported in Sadr City yesterday.

But U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover said a U.S. aircraft fired a Hellfire missile at a group of gunmen late Sunday, killing all three.

In Basra, a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. convoy in the central part of the city, setting a Humvee ablaze and causing casualties, the U.S. military said. No further details were released.

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