Vehicle ban in Baghdad set for Wednesday

Image: An Iraqi family leaves the Shiite enclave of Sadr City Baghdad.
An Iraqi family leaves Baghdad's Sadr City on Monday amid surging violence.Hadi Mizban / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Baghdad military command said Tuesday that unauthorized vehicles and motorcycles will be banned in the capital from 5 a.m. to midnight Wednesday.

The vehicle ban is aimed at preventing violence on the fifth anniversary of the capture of Baghdad by U.S. troops about a month after the war started.

The decision was announced on Iraqi state TV and confirmed by an official in the military command spokesman's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

The ban came as anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded that the Iraqi government protect the public from "the booby traps and American militias" or he could formally end the freeze he imposed seven months ago on his Mahdi Army fighters.

The statement was circulated to the press and public as U.S. and Iraqi troops stepped up their pressure on Shiite militiamen in their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.

Al-Sadr also wants a timetable for the U.S. to leave Iraq. His cease-fire helped bring down violence but has been under severe strain since fighting broke out last month in Basra and Baghdad.

Hundreds of civilians have already fled Baghdad's Sadr City, where gunbattles have raged since last week. The neighborhood, the nerve center of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, has been under siege by about 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Fighting broke out again early Tuesday morning after Iraqi units tried to enter the cleric’s stronghold, a police officer said.

The boom of explosions could be heard across much of Baghdad, apparently coming from the neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Low-flying jets circled the center of the capital several hours before sunrise.

The two sides were using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars in the ongoing combat, said the police officer, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information to the media.

Al-Sadr’s aides said Monday that he would only dismantle the powerful militia — estimated at up to 60,000 — if ordered by top Shiite clerics, who have remained silent throughout the increasingly dangerous showdown.

Worrisome backdrop to Petraeus report
In Washington on Tuesday, the U.S. general commanding the Iraq war called for an open-ended suspension of U.S. troop withdrawals this summer, reflecting concern about a recent flare-up in violence and leaving open the possibility that few, if any, additional troops will be brought home before President Bush leaves office in January.

Gen. David Petraeus told a Senate hearing that he recommends a 45-day “period of consolidation and evaluation” once the extra combat forces that President Bush ordered to Iraq last year have completed their pullout in July. He did not commit to a timetable for resuming troop reductions after the 45-day pause.

An American soldier died Tuesday from wounds received in a roadside explosion. He was the 11th U.S. serviceman killed in Iraq since Sunday.

Al-Maliki raises the stakes
With the crisis showing no sign of abating, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki raised the stakes.

The Shiite prime minister told CNN on Sunday that al-Sadr and his followers would not be allowed to participate in politics or run in provincial elections this fall “unless they end the Mahdi Army.”

Al-Maliki’s statement followed a weekend declaration by top Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to support legislation banning any party that maintained a militia.

An al-Sadr aide, Hassan al-Zarqani, told The Associated Press by telephone from Iran that the Sadrists would consult Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other top Shiite clerics in Iraq. If they “recommend he disband the Mahdi Army, he will obey,” al-Zarqani said.

But it was unclear whether the statement signaled any significant change in strategy by the Sadrist movement. Al-Sadr has maintained for years that only the sect’s top clergy could disband the Mahdi militia.

The crisis erupted March 25 when al-Maliki launched a crackdown against Shiite militias and so-called “criminal gangs” in the southern port city of Basra.