Lawmakers loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr accused the Iraqi government of trying to crush the movement and warned Saturday of "black clouds" on the horizon for truces that have eased fighting between al-Sadr's militia and security forces.
The Sadrist Movement has heightened its rhetoric against the government in recent days, raising concerns over the cease-fires in the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City district, the stronghold of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Still, the lawmakers and other al-Sadr officials said they are adhering to the truces. The cease-fires are crucial to Iraqi security forces' sweeps in Basra and Sadr City, launched by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to show his government can spread its authority in areas long dominated by armed groups like al-Sadr's.
The new tensions were sparked when Iraqi troops in Basra attempted to break up a gathering in a northern square by firing over the heads of al-Sadr followers congregating for Friday prayers. Iraqi authorities recently banned al-Sadr gatherings in the square after a large cache of weapons was found nearby, police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.
Iraqi police in Basra said one person was wounded in the shooting, but al-Sadr officials contended that one person was killed and three wounded.
Sadrist lawmaker Hassan al-Rubaie said Iraqi forces also raided a mosque in the Baghdad district of Amil before prayers on Friday and arrested more than 350 worshippers.
"We see that there is a big nationwide conspiracy against Friday prayers. They (the government) fear it, because the Friday prayers will stand against the plots of our enemies," al-Rubaie told a press conference, referring to the anti-U.S. rhetoric common in prayer sermons run by al-Sadr loyalists.
Arrests of worshippers
Iraqi police officials said forces were conducting a stepped-up sweep Friday against militiamen in Amil and the neighboring area of Bayaa in the southwest part of the capital. During the sweep, the forces cordoned off a cultural center where Sadrists were gathering to hold prayers and arrested some worshippers, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
More than 100 people were arrested in the two districts, they said.
Fellow Sadrist lawmaker Aqeel Abdul-Hussein said Friday prayers also were prevented at Sadrist mosques in Baghdad's Shiite district of Shaab and the southern city of Nasiriyah.
The government is "moving forward in its project to liquidate all the national figures in a more savage way than the previous (Saddam Hussein) regime," Abdul-Hussein told the press conference.
He said that "until now we are still committed to the terms of the (truce) agreement in Sadr City."
"If we find a clear seriousness from the government in implementing it, it could be applied in all provinces of Iraq," he said. "But we see black clouds on the horizon, driven by the government to rain on the sons of the Sadr Movement in the provinces."
When Iraqi forces began their sweep in Basra in late March, it sparked heavy fighting with the Mahdi Army, which launched a wave of violence across southern Iraq and in Sadr City. The fighting in Basra and the rest of the south ended with a truce, mediated by Iran, in mid-April.
Since then, Iraqi security forces have continued raids to arrest wanted figures among the many Shiite militias in Basra, and the troops appear to have greater control of the streets in many districts. Violence has been reduced considerably.
But violence continued for weeks afterward in Sadr City until a cease-fire last week. As part of the truce, some 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police have deployed into the district, home to 2.5 million Shiites.
The Sadrist Movement appears to have agreed to the truces to avert a full-scale government move to suppress the Mahdi Army, a fight that would likely cause heavy casualties and hurt al-Sadr's goal of maintaining his status as a major political player.