Shiites stand by militant al-Sadr

Leading cleric rejects call to isolate head of powerful militia

December 24, 2006|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Saad Fakhrildeen | Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Saad Fakhrildeen,Los Angeles Times

NAJAF, Iraq -- One of Iraq's most influential Shiite clerics rejected a U.S.-backed proposal to isolate Shiite extremists in the national government, saying that the country should govern itself with the help of anti-U.S. firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, according to politicians who spoke with the cleric yesterday.

Shiite politicians met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in this holy Shiite city and then said they had thrown their support behind al-Sadr, who demands a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq rather than the temporary increase under consideration in Washington.

"The Sadr movement is part of Iraqi affairs," said Haider Abadi, a leader of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party. "We won't allow others to interfere to weaken any Iraqi political movement."

Ali al-Adeeb, another member of the Dawa Party, said Shiite leaders, including the prime minister, will resist U.S. efforts to sideline al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

"The Iraqi government decides what it thinks is necessary for the interest of the political process," he said, adding that al-Sadr's participation was essential to improve Iraq's political and security problems. Al-Sadr controls several seats in the Iraqi Cabinet and about 30 seats in parliament, but his loyalists have suspended their participation until fellow Shiite politicians join his call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

The expressions of support for al-Sadr are likely to complicate the Bush administration's efforts to forge a new policy on Iraq.

The U.S. recently labeled the Mahdi Army the top terrorist threat in Iraq. It was involved in clashes with police Friday and yesterday in the southern city of Samawa in which police said five people were killed.

Shiite moderates have been trying to build a coalition with Kurds and Sunnis that would sideline al-Sadr.

Military officials say Bush's new policy will likely include a "surge" of thousands of troops in addition to the 140,000 already here. Many Iraqis grudgingly acknowledge that, while they want the Americans to leave, the U.S. troops are more honest brokers than Iraqi security forces, which they regard as corrupt, incompetent and riddled with sectarian militiamen.

But al-Sadr, whose militia has repeatedly clashed with U.S. troops, vehemently opposes the presence of the Americans.

Abadi said al-Sistani maintains that Iraqis know how best to govern their emerging state, saying that the cleric told him, "Iraqis must get their sovereignty as soon as possible. No Iraqis want foreign troops on his land for a long period. Therefore, the government should be strengthened."

Shiite politicians often meet with al-Sistani. Most of those at the meeting with al-Sistani yesterday were members of the Dawa Party, which is close to the al-Sadr bloc. After meeting al-Sistani, they went to see al-Sadr at his home nearby.

In Samawa, 120 miles south of Baghdad, al-Sadr supporters who had previously agreed to disarm were fighting police yesterday. After militia members killed two police officers related to a local tribe, tribesmen joined the fight, sending gunmen into the streets and occupying the al-Sadr party office, police and tribesmen said.

In Baghdad, two Iraqi soldiers were killed and five injured yesterday when their convoy hit a roadside bomb downtown, police said.

Baghdad police recovered 47 bodies in the 24-hour period that ended yesterday, according to the Interior Ministry. All were shot and most were blindfolded, showing signs of torture, police said.

At least 13 people died by violence yesterday across Iraq.

Authorities in the southern city of Diwaniyah discovered the body of a military intelligence official kidnapped two days ago. A police officer and a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party also were fatally shot. Roadside bombs south of Baghdad and near Kirkuk killed three.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Saad Fakhrildeen write for the Los Angeles Times.

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