Cleric urges protests of US-Iraq proposal
Outcry raises tensions over security pact
BAGHDAD - Militant Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called yesterday for followers to hold weekly protests against a US-Iraqi security deal under negotiation that could lead to a long-term American troop presence.
The outcry by Sadr could sharply heighten tensions over the proposed pact, which is supposed to be finished by July to replace the current UN mandate overseeing US-led troops in Iraq.
Sadr, whose powerful Mahdi Army militia has often battled US and Iraqi forces, is one of the most vocal opponents of the US presence in Iraq, but many Iraqis have expressed worries over any final deal that involves permanent American bases.
Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, did not give specific guidance on the planned demonstrations in a statement issued by top Shi'ite religious officials. Any major marches, however, could put added strain on a tenuous truce between the Mahdi Army and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after weeks of battles that began in late March.
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, a car bomb exploded near a popular market in Tal Afar, killing four civilians and wounding 46 others, said the city's mayor, Major General Najim Abdullah.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. It came hours after an Al Qaeda in Iraq front group warned that insurgents would retaliate against US and Iraqi forces, which began a crackdown nearly two weeks ago in the main northern city of Mosul, 40 miles east of Tal Afar.
A man claiming to be a spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq in Nineveh Province, which includes Mosul, said in a videotape posted online that insurgents were at "full strength" despite the Mosul sweeps and were just waiting for the proper time to counterattack.
"We are the ones who control the hour to start the initiative and we will choose the time for retaliation or engagement," said the unidentified spokesman, whose face was covered. The Islamic State of Iraq is a coalition of insurgent groups lead by Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The US military said an American soldier was killed and two others were wounded Sunday in a roadside bombing in a Sh'iite area south of Baghdad.