A prominent Shiite politician called Friday for Iraqi forces rather than Americans to play a greater security role and for an end to “interference in their work” — an apparent reference to U.S. efforts to curb abuses by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.
Also Friday, the U.S. command announced that three more Americans had been killed in action, bringing to 40 the number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq this month.
The remarks by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the country’s biggest Shiite party, came as the U.S. military drafted plans to move up to 5,000 U.S. troops with armored vehicles and tanks into Baghdad in an effort to quell escalating violence.
Al-Hakim told thousands of supporters at a rally in the southern city of Najaf that the Americans should turn over more security responsibility to the Iraqis and stop “the interference in their work.”
He said the surging violence was due to “being lax in hunting down terrorists and upholding the wrong policies in dealing with them.”
Complaints about U.S. role
Sunni extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists, al-Hakim said, are to blame for the violence. However, he also endorsed the government’s pledge to disband militias, including those affiliated with Shiite politicians.
Al-Hakim, the former commander of the feared Badr Brigade militia, has long complained the Americans have interfered with Iraqi forces’ efforts to crack down on Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida in Iraq terrorists.
Those complaints grew more frequent after U.S. troops raided an Interior Ministry lockup last November and found prisoners showing signs of torture. At the time, the ministry was controlled by al-Hakim’s party and it still wields considerable influence although the ministers were changed in May.
Members of his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq have been suspicious of U.S. and Iraqi government peace overtures to Sunni insurgents and have privately complained that top Sunni politicians have intervened to free suspects picked up in Baghdad.
Al-Hakim spoke a day after a complex attack including rockets, mortars and a car bomb killed at least 31 people in Karradah, a mostly Shiite district in central Baghdad where al-Hakim and other top leaders of his party live.
A statement posted late Thursday on an Islamist Web site claimed responsibility in the name of the al-Sahaba Soldiers, a part of the Sunni extremist Mujahedeen Shura Council which also includes al-Qaida in Iraq. The statement said the attack was “in response to Shiite crimes.”
Al-Hakim’s speech marked the third anniversary of the death of his elder brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, who was killed by an al-Qaida-linked car bomb attack in Najaf.
A struggle for power
Al-Hakim’s party is a major player in the Shiite coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The comments reflect divisions not only within the Iraqi government but among Shiites on the best way to cope with sectarian violence, which U.S. officials now believe is a greater threat to democracy in Iraq than the Sunni insurgency.
The insurgency and the sectarian attacks are essentially two fronts of the same conflict — the struggle for power between Iraq’s two major religious sects unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion that swept away Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003.
Many Sunni Arabs feared they would be marginalized in the new Iraq by the long-oppressed Shiites and Kurds who rose to power behind coalition tanks. Shiite activists believe many Sunnis would like to restore Saddam-style rule.
The three latest U.S. Marine deaths occurred Thursday in Anbar province, a center of the Sunni uprising. The Marines were assigned to the Army’s 1st Armored Division, which has units in the Ramadi area along with the Marines.
Years of vicious attacks by religious zealots, including members of al-Qaida in Iraq, have sharpened the sectarian gulf. Shiite militants struck back after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine, triggering a wave of tit-for-tat attacks.
A four-hour vehicle ban reduced violence Friday, the main Muslim day of worship. The ban has been imposed on Fridays for weeks to prevent bombings of mosques.
Nevertheless, four people were killed and nine were wounded when a bomb exploded near a Sunni mosque in southeast Baghdad, police Capt. Ahmed Ali said.
Gunmen killed two civilians who worked for U.S. troops in Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown 80 miles north of Baghdad, police said. And in the nearby town of Beiji, a man who worked for the railroad was shot and killed.