Video: Al-Sadr followers quit Cabinet posts

msnbc.com news services
updated 4/16/2007 4:04:39 PM ET 2007-04-16T20:04:39

Cabinet ministers loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigned Monday to protest the prime minister’s refusal to set a timetable for an American withdrawal, raising the prospect that the Mahdi Army militia could return to the streets of Baghdad.

The number of bodies found dumped in Baghdad increased sharply on Sunday to 30 — from as low as five in recent days — in a possible sign of the militia’s resurgence, even ahead of the six resignations.

The bodies, most of them tortured before they were shot execution-style, are widely believed to be the victims of Shiite death squads associated with the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr had ordered his fighters hide their weapons and stay off the streets shortly before the U.S. troop surge and security crackdown began on Feb. 14.

The departure of the six ministers, while unlikely to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, deals a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.

Members of the al-Sadr bloc in parliament confirmed the resignations Monday afternoon.

White House reaction
The White House said al-Sadr’s decision to pull out his ministers does not mean that al-Maliki loses his majority.

“I’d remind you that Iraq’s system of government is a parliamentary democracy and it’s different from our system. So coalitions and those types of parliamentary democracies can come and go,” said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.

Al-Sadr, who has tremendous influence among Iraq’s majority Shiites, has been upset about recent arrests of his Mahdi Army fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. He and his followers have also criticized al-Maliki for failing to back calls for a timetable for U.S. troops to leave the country.

The prime minister issued a statement later Monday saying “the withdrawal of multinational forces is linked to our armed forces’ readiness to take over the security command in all provinces.”

Two American soldiers were killed Monday in Baghdad, one in a roadside bombing and a second who came under fire on patrol, the U.S. military said.

Earlier in the day, Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadrist bloc, read a statement declaring that the ministers would “withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government and give the six Cabinet seats to the government, with the hope that they will be given to independents who represent the will of the people.”

“I ask God to provide the Iraqi people with an independent government, far from (U.S.) occupation, that does all it can to serve the people,” the statement said.

Pulling power
Tens of thousands of Iraqis answered a call by al-Sadr to rally in the holy Shiite city of Najaf last week to protest against the presence of some 140,000 U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Al-Sadr himself did not appear — U.S. officials say he is in hiding in Iran, but his aides insist he is still in Iraq.

Before he entered mainstream politics, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. Since then, the militia has been involved in tit-for-tat attacks against minority Sunni Arabs amid spiraling sectarian violence.

The militia, blamed for many of the targeted killings that have left thousands of bodies tortured and shot on Baghdad’s streets, has kept a low profile since the launch of a major security crackdown in Baghdad, reportedly on the orders of al-Sadr.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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