BAGHDAD - Radical Shiite
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resurfaced Friday after nearly four months in hiding and
demanded U.S. troops leave Iraq, a development likely to complicate U.S. efforts
to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.
Hours later, the notorious leader of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the city
of Basra was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest
him, police and the British military said, further enflaming tensions in the
Shiite areas of southern Iraq.
The U.S. military also announced Friday the deaths of six U.S. soldiers,
putting May on pace to be one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces here in
Al-Sadr went underground ！ reportedly in Iran ！ at the start of the U.S.-led
security crackdown on Baghdad 14 weeks ago. He also had ordered his militia off
the streets to prevent conflict with U.S. forces.
His return to the Shiite holy city of
Najaf appeared to be an effort by the 33-year-old firebrand cleric to regain
control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting, and to take advantage of
the illness of a Shiite rival. There had also been some indication that his
absence from the national arena was costing him political support.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
delivers his sermon before 6,000 worshippers in holy Shiite city of Kufa
160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq on Friday, May 25,
Al-Sadr drove in a long motorcade from Najaf to its sister city of Kufa to
deliver an anti-American sermon to 6,000 chanting supporters at the main mosque.
"No, no for Satan. No, no for America. No, no for the occupation. No, no for
Israel," the glowering, black-turbaned cleric chanted in a call and response
with the crowd.
"We demand the withdrawal of the occupation forces, or the creation of a
timetable for such a withdrawal," he said, wiping sweat from his brow with a
white cloth as temperatures hovered at 113 degrees. "I call upon the Iraqi
government not to extend the occupation even for a single day."
While the call for a U.S. pullout was nothing new, al-Sadr also peppered his
speech with nationalist overtones, criticizing the government for not providing
services, appealing to his followers not to fight with Iraqi security forces and
reaching out to Sunnis.
"To our Iraqi Sunni brothers, I say that the occupation sows dissension among
us and that strength is unity and division is weakness," he said. "I'm ready to
cooperate with them in all fields."
Al-Sadr did not address his reasons for returning.
However, during his time in absentia his militia appeared to have split into
a faction calling itself the "noble Mahdi Army" and more extremist elements that
it accuses of killing innocent Sunnis and embezzling funds. Some members of the
more moderate faction were even willing to provide the U.S. military with
information on their rivals in an effort to purge the militia.
In addition to trying to rein in the force, Al-Sadr is also believed to be
honing plans to consolidate political gains and foster ties with Iran ！ and
possibly trying to capitalize on the illness of Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq
leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and went
to Iran for treatment.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies, said al-Sadr might have come back to try to garner Sunni support,
establish himself as a critic of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and take the
mantle as the leading Iraqi opponent of the U.S. presence here.
"In doing so, he can ride a wave of public opinion that sees the U.S. as
having failed, coalition forces as a 'threat,' and is deeply frustrated with a
weak Maliki government," he wrote in an analysis.
Al-Sadr's associates say his strategy rests in part on his belief that
Washington will soon start reducing troop strength, leaving behind a hole in
Iraq's security and political power structure that he can fill. He also believes
al-Maliki's government may soon collapse because of its failure to improve
security, services and the economy, they say.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe expressed
hope that al-Sadr's reappearance signaled he wanted "to play a positive role
"He has an opportunity to be a part of the political reconciliation process.
We'll see if he and his followers participate," he said.
Later Friday, the Mahdi Army received a blow when its Basra leader, Wissam
al-Waili, 23, also known as Abu Qadir, was shot and killed along with his
brother and two aides during a gunbattle with British and Iraqi troops, police
and the British military said.
The battle began about 4 p.m. during a raid to arrest al-Waili in Jumhoriyah,
a middle class, residential area in central Basra, police said. Al-Waili and his
three companions opened fire and were killed when the troops shot back, police
Several hours later, Mahdi Army militants broke into the home of a former top
Iraqi officer in Basra, set one Humvee on fire and stole another.
Al-Sadr's return came amid signs that the sectarian violence which plagued
Iraq last year was rising again, despite the U.S. crackdown.
U.S. military officials have said the number of bodies found blindfolded,
shot and usually with signs of torture is an effective indicator of the
intensity of the violence between Sunnis and Shiites. In February, when the
crackdown began, the number was 640, down from 1,079 the month before, according
to an Associated Press count. In the first 24 days of May, the number was 855,
which would work out to more than 1,100 if the pace of killing continues at the
Meanwhile, three U.S. soldiers were killed in roadside bombings in the
capital and the surrounding areas, the military said Friday. Two others were
killed in explosions north of Baghdad, and a sixth soldier was hit by gunfire in
Diyala province, the military said.
The killings raised the American death toll for the month to at least 88
through May 24. That average of nearly 3.7 deaths a day ！ if it continues ！
would work out to 113 deaths for the month, the most since 137 soldiers were
killed in November 2004, when U.S. troops were fighting insurgents in Fallujah.
Military officials have warned that U.S. casualties were likely to rise
because more troops deployed to Iraq and the military pushed ahead with its
Baghdad security crackdown.
"As we are conducting more operations, we are going into areas we haven't
gone into in force before. We have more people on the ground, this leads to an
opportunity for more contact, more conflict, more clashes," said Lt. Col.
Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. "This is a tough fight. We are in