Shi'ite clerics differ on showdown
At odds over Maliki, outcome
BAGHDAD - Shi'ite clerics offered sharply different visions yesterday in the showdown between government forces and Shi'ite militias - one predicting that armed groups will be crushed in Baghdad and another calling for the prime minister to be prosecuted for crimes against his people.
The contrasting views - given during weekly sermons - showed the complexities and risks in the five-week-old crackdown on Shi'ite militia factions. The clashes have brought deep rifts among Iraq's Shi'ite majority and have pulled US troops into difficult urban combat in the main militia stronghold in Baghdad.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, shows no indication of easing the pressure on groups including the powerful Mahdi Army led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Iraqi and US forces are pressing deeper into Sadr City, a slum of 2.5 million people that serves as the Mahdi Army's base in Baghdad. Maliki also is seeking to increase leverage on Iran, which is accused of arming some Shi'ite militia groups.
A five-member Iraqi delegation was sent to Tehran this week trying to try to choke off suspected Iranian aid to militiamen.
Haider al-Ibadi, a lawmaker from the Iraqi prime minister's Dawa party, said the envoys presented a "list of names, training camps and cells linked to Iran" but the "Iranians did not admit anything."
A key aide to Sadr told worshipers that Maliki is following the same path as Saddam Hussein, who persecuted Shi'ites and others seen as threats.
"Al-Maliki should be tried for the crimes he committed against his people," Shi'ite Sheik Asaad al-Nassiri said in a sermon in the city of Kufa, near the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf. Sadr is currently in the Iranian seminary city of Qom.
Nassiri accused the government of "slipping into the same trench the tyrant [Hussein] had slipped into by shedding innocent blood."
Dozens of civilians have been killed in the clashes in Sadr City, which picked up after Sadr threatened last week to wage "open war" on US-led troops and refused to disband the estimated core of 60,000 Mahdi Army fighters.
Maliki, in turn, has accused the militias of using civilians as human shields.
"The government will liberate Sadr City and clear it from gunmen," prominent Shi'ite cleric and lawmaker Jalaleddin Sagheer said during prayers at the Buratha mosque in Baghdad. "Those criminals have stocks of ammunitions but they will run out of ammunition within days."
Sagheer also predicted the government would root out militias controlling other Baghdad neighborhoods. Four Shi'ite extremists were killed yesterday in the western district of Hay al-Amil, a religiously mixed area in southwest Baghdad, police said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
The US military, meanwhile, blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq for a double suicide bombing Thursday that killed at least 36 people during a wedding procession as people cheered the bride and groom in Balad Ruz, a town northeast of Baghdad.
Al Qaeda insurgents - mostly Sunnis - raked a police car yesterday with automatic weapons, killing eight Iraqi police officers in the town of Qaim on the Syrian border, police said.
In Washington yesterday, President Bush sent lawmakers a $70 billion request to fund US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into next spring, which would give the next president breathing room to make his or her own war policy.
Yesterday's request fills in the details of the $70 billion placeholder that the White House asked for when it sent its budget to Congress in February. The money is for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
Congressional analysts say Bush's request would bring the total spending since Sept. 11, 2001, to fight terrorism and conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to $875 billion.
The request comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill are struggling to move Bush's pending $108 billion request for the current year. Democratic leaders say they are likely to add the $70 billion for next year to that measure, which would allow them to avoid a politically painful vote on war funding in the heat of campaigning for the November elections.
Antiwar Democrats are frustrated at their inability to force the president to scale back war operations and hate to vote to keep the Iraq war going. At the same time, Bush has promised to veto the war funding bill if Democrats add money for domestic programs and present him with a bill over his request.
The bulk of the new money, $45 billion, would fund US combat operations, but there is also $3 billion to deal with roadside bombs and $2 billion to cope with rising fuel costs.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, Congress has provided $526 billion for the Iraq war alone, with the two pending requests coming on top of that. Operations in Afghanistan have cost $140 billion.