Al-Sadr slams U.S. presence

Shiite protest aimed at establishment of post in Sadr City

March 17, 2007|By Tina Susman | Tina Susman,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the presence of U.S. troops in his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City yesterday, and thousands of his followers waved banners and marched through the neighborhood to back his call for a withdrawal of foreign forces.

The protest was aimed at the establishment two weeks ago of a U.S.-Iraqi military outpost in the northeast Baghdad neighborhood, which has a history of opposition to American forces but which in recent weeks had appeared to tolerate them calmly.

But the U.S.-Iraqi security sweep that promised to diminish violence in Baghdad has not stopped Sunni attacks on Shiite targets, including a Sadr City market that was hit Thursday. One man died when a bomb left in the market exploded.

Yesterday's protest followed weekly prayers at which al-Sadr's statement was read by an associate. The number of people there was not unusual for the weekly gathering, but the protesters' words were a sign of growing impatience among Sadr City's people. "We do not want your bases in our city," some of their signs read. "If you build them we will burn them down," read others.

They also carried banners rebutting U.S. military claims that al-Sadr is in Iran. The cleric has not made a public appearance in several weeks, but his loyalists deny that he left Iraq to avoid being caught up in security sweeps.

The relationship between the U.S. and al-Sadr has become increasingly delicate since the new crackdown began Feb. 13. Once the United States' greatest nemesis - his militia fighters battled American forces in the streets of Sadr City - al-Sadr has become a crucial but indirect ally. He pulled his militiamen off the streets when the plan was launched as a favor to the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, which has helped U.S. forces carry out their operations.

Lately, U.S. military officials have given tacit praise to al-Sadr for showing restraint even as Sunni attacks on Shiites continue, and say his cooperation enabled them to move into Sadr City without resistance.

Still, al-Sadr must at least give the appearance of being a fierce resister if he is to maintain credibility among his mainly young and poor supporters.

Elsewhere yesterday, violence killed at least two people. One person died when mortar rounds fell near a Sunni mosque in southeast Baghdad. In Hillah, south of Baghdad, one person died when mortar shells fell in parts of the city.

Sadr City Mayor Rahim al-Darraji, a principal negotiator with American forces, was seriously wounded in a shooting attack on his convoy Thursday.

His negotiation work had created tension in the ranks of Shiite militiamen, and some blamed the assault - which also killed two bodyguards - on a militia faction unhappy about cooperation with the U.S. military, a local Mahdi Army commander said yesterday.

"This is a faction that enjoys some weight," the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

One of the dead bodyguards was identified as police Lt. Col. Mohammad Mutashar Al-Freji, a friend of al-Darraji's who was politically linked to al-Sadr.

Late yesterday, the American military reacted cautiously to the al-Sadr statement. "We have often seen differing political views or differing statements coming out of many of the political organizations here in Iraq, not just the Sadr bloc or al-Sadr's organization," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said. "As we've said, we are, if anything, cautiously optimistic, but it's still very early."

A prominent al-Sadr backer, Sheik Muhannad al-Bahadli, condemned what he called the "oppressive occupiers on the land of Sadr City."

The joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation - launched Feb. 14 - was designed to rein in sectarian violence that had swept Baghdad and central Iraq for nearly a year after the al-Qaida in Iraq bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

The initial success in reining in al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which fought fiercely against U.S. forces in 2004, is widely credited with the drop in execution-style killings, random shootings and rocket attacks during the operation.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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