BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to drop his protection of the feared Shiite militia of a radical anti-American cleric after U.S. intelligence reports convinced him the armed group was deeply infiltrated by death squads whose actions were isolating him both in the Arab world and among moderate political forces at home, two government officials said on Sunday.
Al-Maliki's turnaround on the Mahdi Army was puzzling because as late as Oct. 31, he had intervened to end a U.S. blockade of Sadr City, the northeast Shiite enclave in Baghdad that is headquarters to the militia. It is held responsible for much of the sectarian bloodshed that has turned the capital into a battle zone over the past year.
Shiite militias began taking revenge after more than two years of incessant bomb and shooting attacks by Sunni insurgents.
In a desperate bid to fend off a feared all-out American offensive, the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, last Friday ordered the 30 lawmakers and six Cabinet ministers under his control to end their nearly two-month boycott. They were back at their jobs Sunday.
Al-Sadr had already ordered his militia fighters not to show weapons in public or at least when U.S. or Iraqi forces might see them. They have not, however, ceded control of the formerly mixed neighborhoods they have captured, killing Sunnis or forcing them to abandon their homes and businesses.
“We announce our return to parliament, we will attend today’s session, and the ministers will resume their work to serve the people,” Bahaa al-Araji, one of 30 lawmakers loyal to al-Sadr, said during a news conference attended by Sunni parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. Al-Sadr also has six loyalist ministers in the 38-member Cabinet.
The decision appeared to be a way for both sides to save face while allowing al-Sadr’s bloc, whose support is crucial to al-Maliki, to regain legislative influence ahead of a planned U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in Baghdad.
Saturday's U.S. death toll, the third-highest one-day figure of the war, climbed significantly to 25, as the military reported Sunday that six more troops had died that day, the deadliest in two years.
The latest military reports said four soldiers and a Marine had died during combat Saturday in Anbar province and one soldier was killed in a roadside bombing northeast of Baghdad.
Nineteen of the deaths were reported Saturday, 12 in a Blackhawk helicopter crash, five in an attack on a security meeting in the Shiite holy city of Karbala and two others in roadside bomb attacks elsewhere.
The gunmen who killed five U.S. troops in the Shiite holy city of Karbala wore military uniforms and used vehicles commonly driven by foreign dignitaries — an apparent attempt to impersonate Americans, Iraqi officials said Sunday.
The U.S. military statement about the Karbala attack said “an illegally armed militia group” attacked the provincial headquarters building with grenades, small arms and “indirect fire,” which usually means mortars or rockets.
“A meeting was taking place at the time of the attack to ensure the security of Shiite pilgrims participating in the Ashoura commemorations,” said a statement from Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, deputy commander of the Multi-National Division-Baghdad.
Thousands of Shiite pilgrims are flocking to the city to mark the 10-day Ashoura festival commemorating the death of one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred saints, Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
Provincial Gov. Akeel al-Khazaali, who was not at the security meeting, said the gunmen were able to drive their black SUVs through a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, 50 miles south of Baghdad, because police assumed it was a diplomatic convoy and informed headquarters that it was coming.
“The group used percussion bombs and broke into the building, killed five Americans and kidnapped two others, then fled,” the governor said, adding that Iraqi troops later found one of the SUVs with three bodies dressed in military uniforms.
A security official in Karbala, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information to the media, said the gunmen drove to Babil province after the attack. The Babil police commander confirmed that they entered the region before disappearing.
Although Babil province is predominantly Shiite, some parts of it, just south of Baghdad, are Sunni and insurgents are known to be active there.
U.S. troop buildup begins
Indeed, the first reinforcements of U.S. troops have already started to flow into the region. A brigade of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, part of the buildup, has arrived in Baghdad and its 3,200 soldiers will be ready to join the fresh drive to quell sectarian violence in the capital by the first of the month, the American military said Sunday.
But the deadly toll among U.S. forces comes at a critical time of rising congressional opposition to President Bush’s decision to dispatch 21,500 additional soldiers to the conflict.
Saturday was the deadliest day for U.S. forces in two years. It was also the third-highest of any single day since the war began in March 2003, eclipsed only by 37 U.S. deaths on Jan. 26, 2005, and 28 on the third day of the U.S. invasion. U.S. authorities also announced two American combat deaths from Friday.
In violence reported by police on Sunday:
- A bomb left in a bag struck a small bus carrying people to work in a predominantly Shiite area in Baghdad, killing seven passengers and wounding 15.
- A parked car bomb also exploded outside a restaurant in eastern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding five, according to police.
- A suicide car bomber targeting an Iraqi army patrol killed one woman and wounded five other people in the northern city of Mosul.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.