BAGHDAD -- After long treating radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia gingerly, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ridiculed him yesterday as a man who asks his followers to fight to the death while he resides in safety in Iran.
Al-Sadr, who threatened Saturday to declare a formal end to a cease-fire he announced in August, was also described by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker as running a weakened military organization.
The taunting comments came during an unannounced visit by Rice to the Iraqi capital, in which she praised an ongoing nationwide crackdown against armed militias led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government security forces. Most of the fighting has been directed at elements of al-Sadr's militia, but until yesterday, American officials had taken pains to separate al-Sadr from his more radical followers, who the U.S. claims receives training and arms from Iran.
At least 700 people have died in the fighting in southern Iraq and Baghdad since the government offensive was launched last month.
American officials had long credited al-Sadr's truce for having helped reduce sectarian violence in Iraq since September, a period coinciding with the increased U.S. troop presence in Iraq that began in early 2007.
But yesterday, Rice jettisoned the delicacy with which other senior American officials have tiptoed around al-Sadr in the past two years, lashing out against the firebrand cleric.
"He is still living in Iran," she said. "I guess it's all out war for anybody but him.
"His followers can go to their death and he will still be in Iran."
Al-Sadr warned Saturday that he would launch open war if the Iraqi government, backed by U.S. forces, did not freeze its operations against his militia in Baghdad and the southern port of Basra. Al-Sadr did not respond to Rice's comments yesterday.
If al-Sadr calls for all-out war, it is an open question what would happen. If his militia proved stronger than U.S. and Iraqi government officials evidently believe, he could paralyze southern Iraq and Baghdad and prove a major obstacle to further U.S. troop reductions.
Rice singled out the Mahdi Army yesterday for the troubles in Basra and Baghdad, where in the past American officials have been at pains to separate al-Sadr from his more radical followers, which U.S. officials usually refer to as "special groups."
The Mahdi Army "and particularly special groups ... had completely destroyed law and order in Basra and somebody had to deal with that," Rice told reporters.
Rice said the fight against al-Sadr's militia was proof of a new political will among Iraq's ruling Shiite and Kurdish parties. Iraq's largest Sunni political bloc, which left the government last summer, has indicated it might soon return and has backed the current offensives in Baghdad and Basra.
In turn, al-Sadr officials have charged that his rivals in the government want to weaken his movement ahead of provincial elections due in October. They accuse the government of disregarding al-Sadr's efforts to weed out his militia's bad elements by ordering a cease-fire since August that was shattered in all but name when al-Maliki kicked off his Basra campaign March 24.
"Without the al-Sadr participation in the political process, there wouldn't be any government and there wouldn't be any political process," warned Sadrist parliament member Haidar Fakhrildeen.
Rice's trip yesterday to Baghdad's high-security Green Zone, where the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy are located, was punctuated by at least three rocket attacks from eastern Baghdad, a stronghold of al-Sadr's. One explosion came minutes before she unveiled a plaque to U.S. Embassy employees who had died in Iraq.
Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.