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Al-Sadr blames U.S. for poverty, violence

The Washington Post

BAGHDAD, Iraq &

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rebuked the United States Friday for instigating four years of poverty and violence in Iraq.

Read at mosques in the southern Iraqi city of Kufa and in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum named for his father, the statement excoriated America for creating an Iraq that "is still without water, electricity, fuel, security or peace," and instructed his followers to "rise up" in support of Iraqi resistance to the "occupiers." Al-Sadr called for a massive demonstration in the holy city of Najaf on April 9, the fourth anniversary of the day Baghdad fell.

But these days any statement by Sadr is read with a magnifying glass because the intentions of the author and his feared Mahdi Army militia have perhaps never been quite as inscrutable. U.S. officials insist that Sadr has fled to Iran while his subordinates assert he remains in Najaf. Since the start of a new security offensive seven weeks ago, buoyed by the influx of thousands of new American and Iraqi soldiers into the capital, the prevailing narrative has been that Sadr's forces have laid down their weapons or fled the country, playing wait-and-see until he decides how to react. And with Sadr out of the country, U.S. officials say, his militia has shown signs of splintering into factions beyond his control.

"I think any organization that doesn't have leadership is bound to atrophy," said a senior U.S. embassy official in Baghdad. "The reduction in violence has been rather significant."

But in the past week, Iraqi officials have warned that they see an increase of Mahdi Army violence, especially trademark reprisal killings, following a spate of car bombings and suicide attacks in mainly Shiite areas.

"Sadr's militia froze their activities for a while but we have seen since about 10 days ago that they have restarted their violence," said Omar al-Jubouri, a Sunni adviser to Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.

Other Iraqi officials, including some Shiites, say increased militia violence has occurred in the capital along Palestine Street, adjacent to Sadr City, along Haifa Street just west of the Tigris River and in the neighborhoods of Jamiyah, Sadiyah and Shaab.

In a Pentagon briefing on Friday, Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero said that during the first six weeks of the security plan, civilian deaths have dropped by 30 percent compared with the previous six-week period, but when talking about the Mahdi Army, he observed that "we have seen some indicators of some increased activity, but it's a very dynamic situation and I'd be reluctant to draw a conclusion this early."

The U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is speculation that the recent series of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone may be directed by Mahdi Army members.

"It makes sense that they'd be shooting at us now," the official said.

An Iraqi police official said American helicopters fired on Shiite militiamen east of Sadr City in the Sabeh district on Friday, killing 16 people and wounding 13 others. But Lt. Col. Josslyn L. Aberle said she had no reports of such violence.

U.S.-led forces said they captured another suspected trafficker of the armor-piercing explosives known as explosively formed penetrators. The arrest of the unnamed suspect occurred Friday morning during an operation in Sadr City, the U.S. military said.

The concern over militia activity was heightened by the string of bombings against Shiite targets this week, including two massive truck bombs that exploded in Tall Afar, and the bombings in a market-place in the Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad and in the town of Khalis, north of the capital. In the past seven days, a total of 714 people were killed across Iraq, according to Brig. Gen. Saad Abdul Rahim from the Interior Ministry, making it the bloodiest week since the security plan began.

"High-profile attacks, especially suicide vests and vehicle attacks, have increased by about 30 percent" during the security plan, Barbero told reporters.