BAGHDAD – Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened Saturday to launch an all-out war against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government if it continues a widespread crackdown on his followers.
In a statement brimming with his most bellicose language in months, al-Sadr said he was issuing a “final warning” to the government to end the campaign against Shiite militias that has cost hundreds of lives since it began last month. If not, al-Sadr said, he would declare an “open war until liberation.”
A full-blown uprising by al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia would be a major setback to the security improvements in Iraq over the past year, credited largely to his cease-fire order last summer. The Mahdi Army, which waged two bloody rebellions against U.S. troops in 2004, has shown in the past how quickly it can gather thousands of fighters. “Do you want a third uprising?” al-Sadr said in the statement.
The warning came as Iraqi and U.S. troops continued their offensive against Sadrist strongholds with ground operations and airstrikes that killed at least a dozen people Friday night and Saturday in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched the campaign last month in Basra with the stated aim of eliminating militias and gangs, though most of the fighting appeared to focus on Sadrists. Al-Maliki demanded that al-Sadr dismantle the Mahdi Army militia as a condition of being permitted to participate in provincial elections in the fall.
Al-Sadr repeatedly urged his followers not to fight back, calling the offensive an attempt to weaken a rival Shiite party before the elections. His aides have accused his chief political foes – al-Maliki’s Dawa party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq – of human rights abuses against Sadrists.
“The government is fighting them, shedding their blood, taking their women as hostages and imprisoning their families,” al-Sadr said in the statement. “What mistake have the followers made to escape the injustice of Saddam only to fall under the yoke of assassinations?”
Al-Sadr’s statement was posted on his Web site Saturday night. The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, was traveling abroad and could not be reached. Other senior Iraqi officials said hours later that they had not seen the statement and would not comment.
The U.S. military said it hoped that al-Sadr, who has been bringing his movement further into the political mainstream, would decide not to end the cease-fire he declared eight months ago. “If Sadr declared an open war, we don’t see that as a preferable course of action for anyone,” said Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.