After long treating radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia gingerly, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ridiculed him Sunday as a man who asks his followers to fight to the death while he resides in safety in Iran.
Sadr, who on Saturday threatened to declare a formal end to a cease-fire he ordered for his militia in August, was also described by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker as running a weakened military organization.
The comments came during an unannounced visit by Rice to the Iraqi capital, in which she praised Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s ongoing crackdown on militias. Most of the fighting has been directed at elements of Sadr’s militia, but until Sunday, American officials had taken pains to separate Sadr from his more radical followers, who the U.S. claims receive 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 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 on Sunday, Rice jettisoned the delicacy with which senior American officials have tiptoed around Sadr in the last year, lashing out at 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.”
Sadr on Saturday warned he would launch an “open” war if the Iraqi government did not freeze its operations, backed by U.S. forces, against his militia in Baghdad and the southern port of Basra. Sadr did not respond Sunday to Rice’s comments.
If Sadr calls for a broader conflict, it is an open question what would happen. If his militia proved stronger than U.S. and Iraqi officials evidently believe, he could very well paralyze southern Iraq and Baghdad and prove a major obstacle to U.S. troop reductions.
Rice on Sunday singled out the Mahdi Army for the troubles in Basra and Baghdad, where in the past U.S. officials had blamed “special groups” in the militia for the violence.
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.
She also noted “attacks even on the Green Zone that have emerged from these forces.”
Rice said the fight against 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 turn, Sadr officials have charged that his rivals in the government want to weaken his movement ahead of provincial elections due in October, in which his followers could emerge victorious. They accuse the government of disregarding Sadr’s efforts to weed out his militia’s bad elements by ordering the cease-fire, which was shattered in all but name when Maliki kicked off his Basra campaign March 24.
“Without the Sadr participation in the political process, there wouldn’t be any government and there wouldn’t be any political process,” warned Haidar Fakhrildeen, a member of Sadr’s parliamentary bloc.
Rice’s trip to Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone, where Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy are located, was punctuated by at least three rocket attacks from east Baghdad, a stronghold of Sadr’s. One explosion came just minutes before she unveiled a plaque to U.S. Embassy employees who had died in Iraq.
During the visit, Ambassador Crocker also belittled Sadr’s war threat, describing him as weaker than in 2004, when his militia waged two major revolts against U.S. forces.
Crocker said Iraq’s mainstream Shiite population had turned on the Mahdi Army’s hard-liners and would not support them in an uprising. “I think their capabilities are certainly less than they used to be,” he said.
Both Rice and Crocker said the Sadr movement could still participate in the political process if it gave up its arms.
As Rice met with Maliki and other senior partners in the government, the Mahdi Army battled with Iraqi and U.S. forces in east Baghdad’s Sadr City, a Sadr stronghold.
Witnesses said fighting took place in several residential areas and a U.S. helicopter fired in at least one incident.
A roadside bomb exploded as a U.S. convoy passed through the eastern neighborhood of Baladiyat, leaving one civilian dead and another wounded, police said. The U.S. Army later said the blast had killed a child.
A mortar round landed by a police checkpoint in another area near Sadr City, wounding four officers, and a second roadside bomb in east Baghdad injured three civilians, police said.
The U.S. military confirmed that it had killed seven suspected militiamen in airstrikes and gun battles Saturday night.
U.S. soldiers raided a fire station in Sadr City early Sunday and seized a dozen AK-47s, one PKC machine gun and some ammunition.
Also on Sunday, 12 suspected Shiite militia fighters died in battle with U.S. forces after they came out of Sadr City to attack a U.S. military outpost in the Adhamiya district, the U.S. military said.
A shootout erupted when Mahdi Army gunmen were caught planting a roadside bomb, according to the military. The bomb exploded, killing three of the militants and wounding a fourth.
Within hours, U.S. soldiers killed seven more militiamen in a shootout involving rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. A Stryker armored vehicle supporting the U.S. soldiers killed two more fighters.
Late Sunday, a Hellfire missile fired from a drone killed three suspected militants in Sadr City, the U.S. military said. Fighting also raged in southern Iraq, where Sadr’s movement and the government’s main Shiite parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, have been vying for power.
Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. Special Forces, killed 40 suspected militants in fighting Saturday in the southern city of Nasiriya, the U.S. military announced Sunday. The military declined to identify them as Mahdi Army members but said they took refuge in an office of the Sadr movement.
Sadr spokesman Salah Obeidi said 15 Sadr loyalists had been killed in the attack on what he called a cultural institution. He accused the Iraqi army of burning their bodies.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.