- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for an end to Iraqi bloodshed yesterday and said his threat of an “open war” applies only to U.S.-led foreign troops — stepping back from a full-blown confrontation with the government over a crackdown against his followers.

The new message, which was read during prayers and posted on his Web site, eased fears that Sheik al-Sadr was planning to lift a nearly 8-month-old cease-fire — a move that would jeopardize recent security gains.

“If we have threatened an open war until liberation, we meant a war against the occupier,” the cleric said. Sheik al-Sadr is believed to be in Iran.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set four conditions for ending a government-led crackdown against the Mahdi Army.

In an interview with Al Arabiya TV yesterday, Mr. al-Maliki said the groups must surrender heavy and medium weapons, cease interference in the affairs of the state and the security forces, hand over all wanted people, and present lists of names of people involved in violence.

Mahdi Army fighters have clashed daily with U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces since Mr. al-Maliki launched a crackdown against militias March 25. Last week, Sheik al-Sadr issued what he called a “final warning” to the Shi’ite-led government to halt its offensive or face an “open war until liberation.”

But yesterday’s sermon appeared to be an attempt to ease the showdown. Sheik al-Sadr called on his followers to adhere to the cease-fire order and urged an end to the recent battles, which have left dozens of civilians dead or injured.

“I call upon my brothers in the police, army and Mahdi Army to stop the bloodshed,” he said. “We should be one hand in achieving justice, security and in supporting the resistance in all of its forms.”

He also appealed to Iraqi troops not to fight alongside the Americans, but did not directly call on his fighters to attack them either.

“This is an open war between us and the occupier, so do not interfere in favor of the occupier,” he added.

The offensive began in the oil-rich city of Basra, but an Iranian-brokered truce calmed the situation there and the recent fighting has focused mainly in Sadr City, a district of 2.5 million people in northeastern Baghdad.

Mahdi Army commanders, who have said they have recently taken delivery of new Iranian weapons, expressed disappointment that the cleric had not given them a green light for an offensive.

The U.S. military said yesterday that American and Iraqi forces killed 10 militants in overnight clashes in northeastern Baghdad — most in air strikes.

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