Saturday, April 24, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — An influential anti-American Shiite cleric called on his followers to defend themselves and places of worship after deadly Baghdad mosque bombings but urged self-restraint to avoid giving the U.S. military an excuse for postponing withdrawal plans.

Friday’s bombings — most of them targeting Shiite places of worship as crowds were at prayer — killed 72 people in Iraq’s bloodiest day so far this year. Weeping and wailing crowds marched in funeral processions Saturday in the vast eastern Baghdad slum of Sadr City, and their leaders called for three days of mourning.

The cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, issued a statement late Friday calling on “believers” to join the Iraqi army and police “to defend their shrines, mosques, prayers, markets, houses and their towns.”

He stopped short of mentioning the Mahdi Army, his once-powerful militia, which used to respond to such attacks with raids on Sunni areas. Several advisers said al-Sadr was offering his assistance to the government in a rare show of magnanimity to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It was al-Maliki who crushed the Mahdi Army in 2008 after the militia led bloody uprisings against American forces.

Al-Sadr urged Iraqi leaders “not to be pulled toward the malicious American plans that intend to pull Iraq into wars and fighting in order to find the pretext for staying on our holy lands.” He appeared to be appealing for a renewed commitment, despite continued violence, to stick to a deadline for all U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.

The worst of Friday’s violence took place in Sadr City, where four car bombs exploded as hundreds of worshippers knelt on prayer mats in the streets surrounding al-Sadr’s Baghdad headquarters. On Saturday, a policeman and a hospital official raised the Sadr City death toll to 39, including two Iraqi soldiers, and 128 injured. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

That brought the total number of killed Friday to 72.

The attacks were widely seen as demonstrating the resilience of the Sunni-led insurgency after the slaying of two al-Qaida leaders last weekend. No one has taken responsibility for the blasts, but officials were quick to blame Sunni-led insurgent groups for attacks that struck at a particularly fragile time as Iraq awaits formation of a new government and prepares for U.S. troops to go home by the end of next year.

Most of the attacks were in former Shiite militia strongholds, underscoring the insurgents’ apparent aim of provoking a new round of sectarian bloodshed.

Shortly after dawn Saturday, a half-dozen funeral processions headed from Sadr City to the holy Shiite city of Najaf, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the south. Women in black cloaks comforted crying boys in Sadr City funerals, and anguished men held posters of clerical leaders as they marched.

Sadrist spokesman Abu Zahra announced a three-day mourning period. The office erected a large mourning tent close to where the bombs exploded, and Sadrist supporters gathered to show their support and offer condolences.

Just a few yards away, prayer mats stained with blood that had been used the day before lay over waist-high concrete barriers. On the street where one explosion occurred, pieces of charred flesh and hair stuck to the walls of the houses. There appeared to be little increased presence by Iraqi security forces in the area.

The protracted political wrangling since contentious March 7 elections has raised fears of sectarian violence akin to that seen at the height of the war.

“The government, I hold the government responsible,” said Najim Abdul-Hussein, who works at a generator shop in the area where one blast took place. “There is no stability. That’s why these attacks are increasing.”

Al-Maliki lashed out at the bombers in a statement Friday night, saying the insurgents were trying to fight back after Iraqi security forces killed the two al-Qaida in Iraq leaders on April 18.

April has been the deadliest month in Iraq so far this year, with more than 263 civilians killed in war-related violence, according to an Associated Press count. Still, violence is dramatically lower than past years.

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