Al-Maliki visit to U.S. draws ire of cleric

Shiite links wars in Iraq, Lebanon


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In a sermon yesterday rich with bloody imagery and religious struggle, an influential Shiite cleric condemned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's trip to Washington this week as a betrayal of Islam and a humiliation to his people at the hands of U.S. and Israeli aggressors.

Sheik Khafaji intertwined the bloodshed in Iraq and Lebanon, calling it a design by Christians and Jews to defeat the Muslim world.

He criticized al-Maliki's speech before the U.S. Congress and asked: "What forced you to eat with the occupiers? Is that your reward? You know more than anybody else that the car bombings, terrorism, explosions and bloodletting in Iraq are under the protection of Zionist-American plans."

The sermon during Friday prayers in Baghdad came as U.S. and Iraqi forces are planning a wider security crackdown to stop the unrelenting sectarian violence that is tugging this nation closer to civil war.

Khafaji's comments also added another sensitive dynamic to Iraqi politics -- the sheik is a confidant of Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric whose movement controls a well-armed Shiite militia and 30 seats in Parliament.

Al-Sadr and his followers often use overheated rhetoric to attack Iraq's leaders, but Khafaji's sermon was a pointed attempt to link the recent bloodshed in Lebanon with the violence that has frayed this country since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The sheik said al-Maliki had effectively sold his soul by traveling to Washington to meet with President Bush and gain applause from Congress. "Islam is aloof from you," Khafaji said, referring to the prime minister.

Death squads active

Shortly after Khafaji and other clerics finished their Friday sermons, the sounds of violence reverberated across Iraq. A bomb exploded outside the Sunni Al-Ali Al-Adheem mosque and youth center in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing four civilians and wounding nine.

Shiite and Sunni death squads have been torturing and killing across the city for months.

In the Tikrit region, five gunmen in two cars opened fire on a house, killing two men believed to have been employed at a nearby U.S. base.

In a separate incident, the U.S. military said a Marine was killed Thursday during fighting in Anbar province.

U.S. officials also reported that American and Iraqi forces killed 33 militants earlier this week in a daylong firefight in Musayyid.

A news release said the battle began after militants attacked an Iraqi police station. The U.S. called in an Abrams tank and an Apache helicopter, which fired on a fuel truck suspected of carrying explosives.

Al-Maliki's government has been unable to stop the rampant killing that has paralyzed businesses and turned neighborhoods into blocks of fear.

During his trip to Washington, the prime minister announced that U.S. and Iraqi forces would soon begin actions against death squads and the insurgency in Baghdad. The number of American soldiers in the city is expected to increase from 9,000 to 13,000. U.S. officials announced this week that 3,500 troops scheduled to be rotated home would extend their stays in Iraq.

One of the country's leading Shiite figures, Abdel Aziz Hakim, told followers in the holy city of Najaf yesterday that he opposed an increase in U.S. forces.

"We must activate the project of popular committees to secure the neighborhoods," said Hakim, whose Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is one of the biggest factions in the country's coalition government.

"The security file should be handed over to the Iraqi forces, and no one should interfere with it. The interference in the work of Iraqi security forces prevents them from catching terrorists."

Iran, Israel blamed

A Sunni cleric in Fallujah, Sheik Tariq Hamd, told his followers that "sectarian intolerance will no doubt lead to the breakup of society and make it unable to face the enemy of God. All the sectarian actions have been the creation of the Zionists" and the Iranians.

Al-Maliki is under increasing pressure from inside and outside Iraq. He irritated the Bush administration by criticizing what he described as "Israeli aggression" in Lebanon. But to his extremist critics at home, the prime minister has drifted under the spell of U.S. interests and has not been vocal enough about U.S. and Israeli actions in Lebanon and Iraq.

Khafaji said al-Maliki's Washington visit was unsuccessful for both the Iraqis and the Lebanese. He said the prime minister "rewarded" the Americans and the Israelis by not condemning U.S. policy in the region. And he said al-Maliki betrayed the Iraqi people by agreeing to allow more American troops into Baghdad.

"Allah, history and the Muslims will never forget this," said Khafaji. "You are responsible in front of God," adding that "each drop of blood" spilled in Iraq is "done according to American plans."

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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