Baghdad: Renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a main impediment to US efforts in Iraq, ordered his militiamen on 8 April to redouble their battle to oust American forces and argued that Iraq’s army and police should join him in defeating “your archenemy.”
Security remained so tenuous in the capital on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the US capture of Baghdad that Iraq’s military declared a 24-hour ban on all vehicles in the capital from 5 am on 9 April. The government quickly reinstated the day as a holiday, just a day after it had decreed 9 April no longer would be a day off.
South of Baghdad, a truck bomb exploded near the Mahmoudiyah General Hospital, killing at least 18 people and wounding 23. The pickup truck loaded with artillery shells blew apart several buildings in a warren of auto repair shops.
Violence in Iraq remained as relentless — if more diffuse — as the deepening debate in the United States about the way forward in the war four years after the Marines and the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division swept into the Iraqi capital 20 days into the American invasion from Kuwait.
At least 47 people were killed or found dead in violence on 8 April, including 17 bodies of execution victims dumped in the capital.
The al-Sadr statement Sunday carried his seal and was distributed in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. The cleric, who maintains a home in the city, has called for an enormous demonstration there to mark the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall.
“You, the Iraqi army and police forces, don’t walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your archenemy,” the al-Sadr statement said.
In Washington, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent of Connecticut, said al-Sadr’s words showed the American troop surge was working.
“He is not calling for a resurgence of sectarian conflict. He’s striking a nationalist chord. We’re going to have to watch him closely. He’s not our friend. ... He’s acknowledging that the surge is working,” the senator, a strong backer of the war, said on CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.”
In Najaf, police spokesman Col. Ali Jiryo said cars were banned from entering the city for 24 hours starting 8 p.m. Sunday. Buses were to be at all entrances of the city to transport arriving demonstrators or other visitors to the city center. Najaf residents would be allowed to drive, he said.
Al-Sadr commands an enormous following among Iraq’s majority Shiites and has close allies in the Shiite-dominated government. He urged his followers not to attack fellow Iraqis but to turn all their efforts on American forces.
“God has ordered you to be patient in front of your enemy, and unify your efforts against them — not against the sons of Iraq,” the statement said.
Al-Sadr apparently issued the statement in response to three days of clashes between his Mahdi Army militiamen and US-backed Iraqi troops in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad.
Hours after the Mahmoudiyah truck bombing, five charred bodies still littered a courtyard. Most of the dead were mechanics in the repair shops, officials said. The hospital was slightly damaged by shrapnel. Many of the victims were in their homes at the time of the blast, 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad.
The US military announced the deaths of four more American soldiers, killed on 7 April in an explosion near their vehicle in Diyala province, the new headquarters of Iraq’s sectarian slaughter.
At least 3,274 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
While religious-based killings are lower in Baghdad in the eighth week of the security crackdown, Sunni insurgents — including al-Qaida in Iraq — and Shiite militia fighters have shifted their battleground to regions like Baqouba, the Diyala province capital 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad.
At least 62 bodies — execution victims who were tortured first — were found in or near Baqouba last week alone.
In a rural area just east of Baghdad, three mortar rounds crashed into houses and six people were taken to a hospital in Sadr City with breathing troubles from a possible chemical agent, police said.
Doctors said the victims’ faces turned yellow and they were unable to open their eyes. One hospital official said the chemical was chlorine, although such an effect was not seen as likely given the small amount of the chemical that could be fitted into the shells.