Al-Sadr threatens to end cease-fire, cancels protest

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened yesterday to formally end an already tattered cease-fire he had ordered his Mahdi Army militia to obey. The radical preacher also canceled plans for a protest march against the Iraqi government and its U.S. allies scheduled for today, after complaining about harassment from the authorities.

The warning on the truce came on the day that U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker testified to Congress about the situation in Iraq and as U.S.-led forces continued to battle militants in Baghdad.

"The Iraqi government should know that the Mahdi Army will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi people to provide all they need from security, stability and independence," al-Sadr said in a statement. "If this means that the 'freeze' shall be lifted in order to achieve our aims and religious beliefs, then we shall do so later in an announcement."

Al-Sadr had called for a million followers to descend on the capital in protest today to mark the fifth anniversary of Baghdad's fall to U.S. troops. But al-Sadr spokesman Salih Obeidi complained yesterday that the government had blocked the movement from bringing supporters to Baghdad from southern Iraq.

"The government made many obstacles against us, so we couldn't go on with it," Obeidi said of the march. He said al-Sadr had made his decision to protect his followers from any provocations on the government's side.

There had been concerns that the march would aggravate tensions between al-Sadr and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and spur further violence. Despite al-Sadr's announcement, the government confirmed an expected ban on vehicle traffic in the capital for today, starting at 5 a.m.

Yesterday afternoon, the roads into Sadr City were nearly empty, as a few people were seen walking with bags of groceries back into the neighborhood. The mostly Shiite area, home to 2.5 million people, has been a battle zone since the end of last month.

Residents reported gunbattles in the neighborhood yesterday. Police in Sadr City reported 12 deaths in the latest violence, including a mortar attack and an airstrike by U.S. forces. Hospital officials reported that at least 47 wounded Iraqis were treated.

The U.S. military confirmed that it had launched Hellfire missiles that killed as many as 12 people it said had been firing mortars and rockets. The Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy, has been pounded by rockets since late last month, when U.S.-backed Iraqi troops launched operations against Shiite gunmen in the southern city of Basra and fighting spread.

In an unusual Iranian criticism of militants battling the U.S. presence in Iraq, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini in Tehran condemned the attacks on the Green Zone yesterday and praised the Iraqi government for cracking down on illegally armed groups, according to a report published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA.

At the same time, he condemned the loss of civilian life, criticized U.S. forces for bombing residential areas of Sadr City and Basra, and urged Americans to hand power to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

A U.S. soldier was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb yesterday afternoon in Shiite northeastern Baghdad, the U.S. military said, and a bomb blast claimed the life of another U.S. soldier in Baghdad on Monday night. The deaths raised to 11 the number of American soldiers killed in action since early Sunday as U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army have battled around Baghdad. One U.S. soldier also died in an incident not related to the combat.

Ned Parker and Tina Susman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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