Cleric deplores Iraq violence

Militant Shiite al-Sadr lashes out at U.S. officials, Iraqi politicians


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Scattered attacks targeting police and civilians killed 30 Iraqis yesterday as militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr lashed out at Iraqi politicians and U.S. officials for failing to stop the violence.

The attacks followed a bloody Sunday in which at least 52 people were killed and close to 300 wounded by bombs and mortar fire in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City.

"When things reach a certain point, then nobody can control the reins," said Abdulsattar Nasri, a 47-year-old lawyer, as people gathered at a nearby hospital yesterday to retrieve the bodies of relatives.

Four men were found hanged yesterday near the Jolan athletic club in Sadr City, each with a note pinned to his chest spelling out "traitor," in what appeared to be retribution by residents for the previous night's attacks, police said. Witnesses told authorities that two of the men had been captured wearing explosive belts and the others had been caught firing mortars at targets in Sadr City.

Eleven more bodies were found scattered throughout Baghdad neighborhoods.

Amid rising impatience at daily attacks, al-Sadr vowed to confront attacks on Shiites "militarily, religiously and ideologically," during a speech in the holy city of Najaf.

"We're not weak," al-Sadr said. "But I don't want to be dragged into a civil war."

Speaking to reporters, al-Sadr criticized the American administration for interfering in Iraqi affairs and the Iraqi government for being weak and self-involved.

The Iraqi politicians "are busy: `I want to be president; I want to be minister,'" he said. "They forget the people, and they are busy with their own interests."

In a retort to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's statement last week that the United States would rely on Iraqi forces in case of an all-out civil war, al-Sadr added: "Whether there is or isn't a civil war, we don't want you to interfere in Iraqi affairs whatsoever."

In his speech, the Shiite Muslim cleric did not blame Sunni Arabs for the two days of attacks but urged them to publicly distance themselves from the insurgency.

Throughout the day, al-Sadr's militiamen set up checkpoints and patrolled the streets, many of which were bloodied and littered with victims' shoes and bits of clothes.

Ali Eqabi, a 32-year-old firefighter, said Shiites had withstood many provocations over time, but added: "There is an end to everything, including patience."

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, condemned the attacks against Sadr City.

"The way that this criminal, bloody act was done leaves no doubt that terrorists targeted a peaceful, civilian area to arouse sectarian sedition and civil war," he said in a statement.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political group, denounced the bombings, encouraging leaders to cooperate and "stop the bloodshed that is reaching all Iraqis regardless of religion and sect."

Meanwhile, the British government announced a 10 percent reduction of its forces in Iraq, saying that Iraqi security forces are becoming more capable of handling security.

Britain's nearly 8,000-troop force is concentrated in four predominantly Shiite provinces of the south, an area that has experienced less violence than the Sunni provinces north and west of Baghdad.

British Defense Secretary John Reid told the House of Commons yesterday that "our analysis is that civil war is neither imminent nor inevitable."

But he stressed that the reductions are not part of a handover of "security responsibility to the Iraqis."

Reid said 800 British troops would be withdrawn in May, leaving about 7,000 deployed in four southern provinces.

Britain had 46,000 military personnel in Iraq during combat operations in March and April 2003. That dropped to 18,000 in May 2004, and to 8,500 at the end of last year.

The U.S. military confirmed the death of an American soldier yesterday in eastern Baghdad and that of a Marine the day before in Anbar province.

Louise Roug and Raheem Salman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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