Iraqi Cabinet ministers allied to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened Wednesday to quit the government to protest the prime minister’s lack of support for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Such a pullout by the very bloc that put Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in office could collapse his already perilously weak government. The threat comes two months into a U.S. effort to pacify Baghdad in order to give al-Maliki’s government room to function.
Meanwhile, bodies lay scattered across two central Baghdad neighborhoods after a raging battle left 20 suspected insurgents and four Iraqi soldiers dead, and 16 U.S. soldiers wounded, witnesses and officials said.
The fighting Tuesday in Fadhil and Sheik Omar, two Sunni enclaves, was the most intense since a massive push to pacify the capital began two months ago.
‘We are serious about withdrawing’
Al-Sadr’s political committee issued a statement a day after al-Maliki rejected an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal.
“We see no need for a withdrawal timetable. We are working as fast as we can,” al-Maliki told reporters during his four-day trip to Japan, where he signed loan agreements for redevelopment projects in Iraq.
“To demand the departure of the troops is a democratic right and a right we respect. What governs the departure at the end of the day is how confident we are in the handover process,” he said, adding that “achievements on the ground” would dictate how long American troops remain.
Al-Maliki spoke a day after tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of two Shiite holy cities, on al-Sadr’s orders, to protest the U.S. presence in their country. The rally marked the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s conquer by American forces.
“The Sadrist movement strongly rejects the statements of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in which he stood by the continued presence of occupation forces despite the will of the Iraqi people,” said the statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
“The Sadrist movement is studying the option of withdrawing from the Iraqi government — a government that has not fulfilled its promises to the people,” it said.
“We are serious about withdrawing,” it added.
It would not be the first time the Sadrists, who hold six seats in the Cabinet, left al-Maliki’s government.
Al-Sadr’s ministers and 30 legislators boycotted the government and parliament for nearly two months to protest a November meeting between al-Maliki and President Bush in Jordan.
The statement expressed anger over the Baghdad security plan launched on Feb. 14, calling it “unfair.” Iraqi and U.S. troops have been targeting members of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, which has been blamed for sectarian killings.
Also Wednesday, Iraqi soldiers held a security cordon around Fadhil, and residents hid frightened in their homes, a witness told The Associated Press by telephone, on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.
The Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni group, issued a statement quoting witnesses as saying Tuesday’s battle began after Iraqi troops entered a mosque and executed two young men in front of other worshippers. Ground forces used tear gas on civilians, it said.
“The association condemns this horrible crime carried out by occupiers and the government,” the statement said.
But the witness in Fadhil said the two men were executed in an outdoor vegetable market, not in the mosque. The Iraqi military was not immediately available to comment on the claim.
The U.S. military said the battle began after American and Iraqi troops came under fire around 7 a.m. during a routine search operation. Helicopter gunships then swooped in, engaging insurgents with machine gun fire, the military said in a statement.
U.S. helicopter damaged
Some Arab television stations reported an American helicopter was shot down in the fight, and showed video of a charred piece of mechanical wreckage that was impossible to identify. The United States said an attack helicopter suffered damage from small arms fire but returned to base.
By Wednesday, 13 of the 16 wounded Americans had returned to duty, according to a senior U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter. Twenty suspected insurgents were killed and 30 wounded, he said.
In other violence, a roadside bomb killed one policeman and wounded three others in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, police said.
Another roadside bomb targeted a police patrol in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing another policeman and wounding two others, police said. Six civilians also were hurt, said Brig. Abdul Karim Khalaf.