Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement Friday calling on his supporters to resist U.S. forces in Iraq, and a local militia commander blamed an attack against the mayor of Sadr City on a faction unhappy about cooperation with Americans.
"The occupiers want to harm this beloved (Sadr City) and tarnish its name by spreading false rumors and allegations that negotiations and cooperation are ongoing between you and them," Sheik Haider al-Jabri said in reading a statement from al-Sadr to worshippers in the main Shiite district in Baghdad. "I am confident that you will not make concessions to them and will remain above them. Raise your voices in love and brotherhood and unity against your enemy and shout 'No, no America.'"
The statement came a day after gunmen opened fire on the convoy carrying Mayor Rahim al-Darraji in eastern Baghdad, seriously wounding him and killing two of his bodyguards, police and a local official said.
Al-Darraji was the principal negotiator in talks with U.S. officials that led to an agreement to pull Shiite fighters off the streets in Sadr City, a stronghold of the feared Mahdi Army, and a local commander said suspicion fell on a group of disaffected militiamen who are angry about the deal.
"This is a faction that enjoys some weight," the Mahdi Army commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Tension within the militia
He said the attack has created tension within the ranks of the militia and renewed debate about allowing the Americans to operate in Sadr City without resistance during a security sweep aimed at ending the sectarian violence that has raged since a Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Al-Darraji had also lobbied the Americans to bring reconstruction projects to Sadr City that would create jobs in the impoverished neighborhood. U.S. military commanders have said that could help disarm the largely unemployed men in the Mahdi Army.
One of the dead bodyguards was identified as police Lt. Col. Mohammad Mutashar Al-Freji, a friend of al-Darraji who was politically linked to al-Sadr.
The success in reining in al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which fought fiercely against U.S. forces in 2004, is widely credited with the drop in execution-style killings, random shootings and rocket attacks during the month-old operation, and the attack against al-Darraji cast a shadow on that strategy.
Thousands of al-Sadr supporters also took to the streets after traditional weekly prayer services to protest a joint U.S.-Iraqi base that has been established in the sprawling district in eastern Baghdad as part of the security plan.
Sadrist Sheik Muhannad al-Bahadli condemned what he called "a base for the oppressive occupiers on the land of Sadr City."
"They wanted Iraq to be a model for democracy to be followed by other countries in the region. Look what happened in Iraq after four years of occupation: booby-trapped cars and bombs blowing up and killing Iraqis," he added.
Al-Sadr's whereabouts are unknown since he was reported by the Americans to be absent from Iraq and believed to be in Iran on Feb. 13, a day before the security operation started. The cleric has frequently spoken out against American forces but reportedly gave orders for restraint from his militiamen during the security crackdown.
Four U.S. soldiers, meanwhile, were killed in a roadside bombing Thursday in mainly Shiite eastern Baghdad and the military said it found a sophisticated weapon at the site that was of the type Washington believes is being supplied by Iran to Shiite militias.
Two more American troops were reported killed Friday — a U.S. soldier who died in an explosion Thursday in the volatile Sunni province of Salahuddin, northwest of Baghdad, and a Marine who died in a non-combat incident Thursday in Anbar province, west of the capital. A Marine also died Wednesday in a non-combat incident in Anbar.
At least 74 Americans have been killed in fighting since the U.S.-Iraqi security sweep to stop the sectarian violence in Baghdad began — most in Baghdad or volatile areas north of the capital and to the west in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province. At least 3,208 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war began four years ago next week, according to an Associated Press count.
General: U.S. troops at greater risk
U.S. Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., who is on his second tour of Iraq, acknowledged Thursday that U.S. troops were at greater risk in the capital simply because they were in the streets in greater numbers.
Fil also said the United States would have American soldiers in as many as 100 garrisons scattered throughout Baghdad by the time the last of the additional 20,000-plus troops allocated by President Bush arrive at the end of May. There are now 77 such posts, he said.
The bases will be a combination of Joint Security Stations — command and control centers operated jointly with Iraqis — and small combat outposts.
In northern Iraq, traffic stopped and people stood still in the streets despite rain for a period of silence in Sulaimaniyah and other Kurdish cities to commemorate the anniversary of a 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja that killed an estimated 5,600 people and left many still suffering the aftereffects of nerve and mustard gas.
Hundreds of victims' relatives and local officials gathered in the city hall in Halabja, 150 miles northeast of Baghdad, and lit 19 candles to symbolize the 19 years since the massacre took place.
Saddam Hussein had ordered the attack as part of a scorched-earth campaign to crush a Kurdish rebellion in the north, seen as aiding the Iranian enemy, although the ousted leader was executed on other crimes against humanity before he could face trial for Halabja.
"Each year on this day, I remember the vicious attack carried out by Saddam against the peaceful city," Tuba Abid, 53, who lost 22 relative in the attack, said as she laid roses on a victims' monument in Halabja. "The execution of Saddam has reduced my pains and I feel more secure after the death of this dictator."
Weather keeps al-Maliki away
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had planned to attend the ceremony, but his plane was unable to land at the airport and was forced to return to Baghdad because of the bad weather, Kurdish officials said.
In other violence Friday, according to officials:
- Gunmen killed a member of the governmental facilities protection service in Suwayrah, 25 miles south of Baghdad.
- A police patrol in the northern city of Kirkuk struck a roadside bomb, then was ambushed by gunmen. Two policemen were killed and three civilians wounded.
- A mortar attack against a Sunni mosque in the southeastern Baghdad neighborhood of Zafaraniyah killed one civilian and wounded two others.