BAGHDAD - With deadly attacks against US targets increasing around Baghdad, anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr raised the possibility yesterday that he may not renew a six-month cease-fire widely credited for helping dramatically reduce violence.
The cease-fire is due to expire Saturday, and there were fears, especially among minority Sunni Arabs, that the reemergence of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia could return Iraq to where it was just a year ago - with sectarian death squads prowling the streets of a country on the brink of civil war.
A surge of violence would also make it all the more difficult for Iraq's Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds to reach agreements on sharing power and wealth, and greatly complicate the debate in the United States on whether and how quickly to withdraw troops.
The US military has angered some Sadrists by carrying out raids against breakaway factions. There have been calls from within the militia and its political wing to call off the cease-fire.
Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a US military spokesman, blamed Iranian-backed Shi'ite extremists for a flurry of rocket attacks - including one Monday against an Iraqi housing complex near the country's main US military base that killed at least five people and wounded 16, including two US soldiers.
Smith also said one American civilian was killed and a number of US troops and civilian personnel were wounded in a rocket attack in the southeastern area of Rustamiyah on Tuesday night. He did not elaborate, but there is a US base in the predominantly Shi'ite area.
He said those attacks and another on Tuesday were carried out by "Iranian-backed Special Group criminals," a term the military uses to describe groups that broke away from the Mahdi Army militia or refused to respect the cease-fire Sadr declared last August.
The cease-fire has been a key element in a three-piece puzzle that has come together to help reduce violence since mid-2007. The two other factors are the influx of thousands of US troops last summer, and creation of Sunni-dominated groups funded by the US military to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, the most extremist of the Sunni insurgents.
Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Sadr in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying the cease-fire was extended, "then that means the freeze is over."
The ambiguity left many Iraqis uneasy.
"The drop in violence and the quiet which Baghdad witnesses is clear evidence that this militia was behind all the chaos in the past," said Sunni Parliament member Asmaa al-Dulaimi.
She said ending the cease-fire "will affect national reconciliation and will further deteriorate the security situation nationwide. Resuming their activities, whether against the government or civilians, will lead to a new confrontation with them."
Smith said that under current conditions, violence was still dropping. He said the number of civilian deaths in Baghdad had fallen from 1,087 men, women, and children killed in February 2007 to 178 in the first month of this year.
According to an Associated Press count, at least 238 civilians and security forces died in Baghdad last month, compared with 1,148 killed in February 2007.
Smith also said the number of execution-style killings carried out by so-called sectarian death squads had dropped some 95 percent, from 800 in February 2007 to below 40 this month.
The AP determined that at least 640 bodies were found on Iraq streets or in mass graves in February 2007, compared with at least 184 so far in February 2008.
But there has been a recent surge of attacks attributed to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Yesterday, a US soldier was killed and three were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the northwestern city of Mosul, the military said.
The military has described Mosul as the last urban stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Separately, a roadside bomb killed a soldier assigned to Multi-National Division-Center, which is responsible for territory south of Baghdad. The military statement did not give a more exact location.
Three Iraqi children were killed and seven others wounded when they were hit by an insurgent mortar attack while playing soccer outside a military supply area on Tuesday near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
In violent Diyala Province north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber yesterday killed seven people and wounded 17, officials said.
The US military and the Iraqi government have asserted that Sunni insurgents led by Al Qaeda in Iraq are increasingly trying to use Iraq's most vulnerable populations as suicide bombers to avoid raising suspicions or being searched at checkpoints that guard access to many markets, neighborhoods, and bridges in the capital.