Shi'ites, Sunnis support Maliki in militia showdown
BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister got a show of support from political leaders of both Muslim sects yesterday as he moved to isolate anti-US Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers.
The meeting drew warnings from Sadrist lawmakers that the government's effort against them could backfire even as fighting between Shi'ite militants and US-Iraqi forces eased somewhat after days of fierce clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City district.
The fighting has taken its toll on all sides. The US military announced that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday in central Baghdad, raising to 18 the number of Americans who died in Iraq during the first 10 days of April.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, convened the meeting of the main political blocs to discuss the Iraqi-led crackdown on militias that began March 25 in the southern city of Basra, triggering the current crisis.
But the notable absence of the Sadrists signaled that Maliki was making good on a threat to try to isolate the movement politically if its Mahdi Army militia is not disbanded.
The Sadrists complained they were not invited to the meeting.
"The Iraqi prime minister is waging a political war," Sadrist lawmaker Falah Shanshal said. "But he is committing a big mistake, because the Sadr movement enjoys the support of a large portion of the Iraqi public."
The developments came after Iraqi authorities announced they would lift a two-week-old vehicle ban on Sadr City and another Shi'ite militia stronghold, Shula, this weekend. The intent is to provide relief to the residents who have suffered from food shortages as well as the violence.
Sheik Salman al-Feraiji, Sadr's chief representative in Sadr City, welcomed the decision but warned "the battle is not over yet because the US helicopters are still hovering over the city and US forces are still surrounding it."
He also accused Maliki of waging a personal vendetta against the Sadrist movement, despite the government's assertion it is targeting only criminal gangs.
"Maliki is refusing to listen to us or meet our leaders," Feraiji said. "We think that Maliki is determined to continue his mission, and the recent lull happened because of the US criticism of the fruitless performance of his security forces."
Violence in Iraq had declined last year and early this year following a 7-month-old cease-fire by Sadr, an influx of American troops, and a Sunni revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But the recent government crackdown on the Mahdi Army has provoked fierce retaliation, underscoring the fragility of the security gains.
A marked reduction in casualty rates began around September 2007, and daily averages continued to decline throughout the rest of that year. However, since reaching a low this past January of 20 Iraqis killed per day, casualty levels have once again started to rise, with 26 killed per day in February and 41 per day in March.
In the first nine days of April, at least 261 Iraqi civilians and security personnel were killed or found dead across Iraq, an average of 29 per day, an Associated Press tally showed.
That's still about half of what they were a year ago; the daily average for April 2007 was 62 Iraqis killed.
The clearing of former insurgent strongholds also has led to the increasing discovery of mass graves. More than 30 bodies believed to have been buried for more than a year were unearthed yesterday by Iraqi troops at a house south of Baghdad, the military announced.
In Sadr City yesterday, a US helicopter fired a Hellfire missile through the ground floor of a two-story building, killing at least three people and wounding six, Iraqi police said.
The military said the missile was targeting a potential rocket site and it reported no casualties.
A US drone later fired a Hellfire missile at a car speeding away from a rocket-launching site, causing an unknown number of casualties, the US military said.