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Do not fight Iraqi forces, al-Sadr tells followers

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Deborah Haynes in Baghdad (Karim Kadim) The religious leader of Iraq’s biggest Shia militia today ordered his followers to refrain from fighting the Iraqi security forces, explaining that an earlier threat of all-out war had been directed at US and British troops alone.
"I call upon my brothers in the army, police and al-Mahdi Army to stop the bloodshed," Moqtada al-Sadr, the influential cleric, said in a statement read out on his behalf at a Baghdad mosque during Friday prayers.

"When we threatened an open war, it was meant against the occupation and not against our people. There will be no war between Sadrists and Iraqi brothers from any groups."

The black-turbanned cleric, who has not been seen in public for almost a year and is believed to be studying in Iran, also urged the Iraqi security forces to distance themselves from US and British troops.

His comments came as US and Iraqi forces pushed on with operations to combat rogue elements of the Mahdi Army and other armed gangs in the Shia stronghold of Sadr City in east Baghdad. An offensive is also underway in Iraq’s second city of Basra, but Iraqi soldiers and police no longer facing much resistance.

The Basra campaign, launched a month ago by Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, sparked fierce clashes across Shia-dominated southern Iraq as well as Baghdad, prompting Hojatoleslam al-Sadr to issue his war warning last Saturday.

The cleric, who launched two uprisings against US forces in 2004, ordered a ceasefire last summer that is seen as a key factor in a reduction in violence across the country over the subsequent months.

Fighting in recent weeks, however, has pushed the militia-freeze to the brink of collapse. The prospect of another Shia uprising could unravel much of the gains made on the security front at a time when US forces are starting to withdraw.

In fresh violence in and around Sadr City, the US military said it had killed 10 fighters in helicopter missile strikes and ground battles in eastern Baghdad overnight.

Sources at two hospitals said they had received the bodies of 11 people killed in air strikes, all men. Another 74 people, including nine women and 12 children, were wounded, the hospital sources said.

Away from the Shia strife, Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs look set to return to the political fold after quitting the Government last year.

Mr Maliki said yesterday that the parties that had walked out of his Cabinet have agreed to rejoin. The main Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, said it intended to submit a list of candidates for Cabinet positions within days. Its return to the Government has been a major goal of the United States.

Created by anita
Last modified 2008-04-29 06:01 AM

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