Moqtada al-Sadr reappeared in public in Iraq on Friday for the first time since January, and within hours Mahdi Army forces were attacked in Basra and Sadr City. -- AP reported Saturday that hours after al-Sadr's speech on Friday a Mahdi Army leader in Basra "was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest him." -- And "American forces raided [al-Sadr's] Sadr City stronghold [in eastern Baghdad] and killed five suspected militia fighters in air strikes" on Saturday. -- Reuters reported that "A militant leader suspected of ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards was captured" in the Sadr City raid. -- A recent analysis by Gareth Stansfield of Chatham House emphasized that "If the U.S. and the U.K. wish to maintain Shi'a moderation in the face of devastating terrorist attacks, then the Sadr Movement needs to be recognized as a key and enduring feature of Iraq's political landscape which whould be brought further into the political process." -- These latest attacks are evident indications of a contrary intent. -- Stansfield noted that "The Sadr Movement has had an exceptionally bad press in the West," and the hostility toward Moqtada al-Sadr regularly displayed by the New York Times has been an important part of that. -- This attitude was on display again on Saturday. -- Analyzing his "fiercely anti-American sermon," reporter John Burns claimed in his lead paragraph that Sadr's "guise as a nationalist" was "new." -- But in fact this is untrue; Sadr has often spoken as an Iraqi nationalist in the past. -- Toward the end of the article, Burns acknowledged in backhanded fashion that a nationalism that transcends sectarian loyalties was "something he has made moves toward before," but ignores the fact that this contradicts his story's lead. -- Burns noted that al-Sadr "renewed earlier demands for a timetable for an American troop withdrawal, saying the Iraqi government 'should not extend the occupation even for a single day,'" a position that seems clear enough — but then observed gratuitously that "he avoided setting a deadline, perhaps because of widespread fears among Iraqi Shiites that Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated army and police are far from ready to stand alone." -- In brief, the Times continued to evince its usual hostility to this anti-Zionist opponent of American occupation and authentic voice of Iraq resistance. -- But in that context, it is interesting that Burns refrained from calling him a "radical" or "militant," as it has ususally done in the past. -- Burns repeated American allegations that al-Sadr has spent recent months in Iran, though "Mr. Sadr’s spokesmen insisted Friday that he had remained in Iraq all along," and he failed to note the recent revelation by Iraq's national security adviser that in 2004 the U.S. made an attempt to assassinate al-Sadr. -- In sum, Burns's entire analysis is invalidated by its failure to recognize that, as Gareth Stansfield put it, "Iraq has fractured into regional power bases. Political, security, and economic power has devolved to local sectarian, ethnic, or tribal political groupings. The Iraqi government is only one of several 'state-like' actors." ...
U.S. CAPTURES SUSPECTED KEY IRAQI MILITIA FIGURE
By Sinan Salaheddin
May 26, 2007
BAGHDAD -- A day after radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr resurfaced to end nearly four months in hiding and demand U.S. troops leave Iraq, American forces raided his Sadr City stronghold and killed five suspected militia fighters in air strikes today.
U.S. and Iraqi forces called in the air strikes after a raid in which they captured a "suspected terrorist cell leader," the U.S. military said in statement.
The statement claimed the captured man was "the suspected leader in a secret cell terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq, as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terrorist training."
EFP's are deadly roadside bombs that hurl a fist-size slug of molten copper that penetrates armor, a weapon that has been highly effective against American forces over the past year.
The militia fighters were killed in air strikes on nine cars that were seen positioning themselves to attack American forces after the raid, the military said.
Al-Sadr's reappearance in the fourth month of the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown on Baghdad and environs was expected to complicate the mission to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.
Hours after the cleric spoke in at a key Shiite shrine in Kufa, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, the notorious leader of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the city of Basra was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest him, police and the British military said, further inflaming tensions in the Shiite areas of southern Iraq.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of eight U.S. soldiers and a Marine, putting May on pace to be one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces here in years.
Al-Sadr went underground -- reportedly in Iran -- at the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown on Baghdad 14 weeks ago. He also had ordered his militia off the streets to prevent conflict with U.S. forces.
His return to the Shiite holy city of Najaf appeared to be an effort by the 33-year-old firebrand cleric to regain control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting, and to take advantage of the illness of a Shiite rival. There also had been some indication that his absence from the national arena was costing him political support.
Al-Sadr drove in a long motorcade from Najaf to its sister city of Kufa to deliver an anti-American sermon to 6,000 chanting supporters at the main mosque.
While the call for a U.S. pullout was nothing new, al-Sadr also peppered his speech with nationalist overtones, criticizing the government for not providing services, appealing to his followers not to fight with Iraqi security forces and reaching out to Sunnis.
"To our Iraqi Sunni brothers, I say that the occupation sows dissension among us and that strength is unity and division is weakness," he said. "I'm ready to cooperate with them in all fields."
Al-Sadr did not address his reasons for returning, but associates say his strategy rests in part on his belief that Washington will soon start reducing troop strength, leaving a void in Iraq's security and political power structure that he can fill. He also believes al-Maliki's government may soon collapse because of its failure to improve security, services, and the economy, they say.
The Mahdi Army received a blow when its Basra leader, Wissam al-Waili, 23, also known as Abu Qadir, was shot and killed along with his brother and two aides during a gunbattle with British and Iraqi troops, police and the British military said.
Late Friday and into the early hours today, Mahdi Army loyalists surrounded a police station after hitting it with mortar fire, a top Basra police official said. He claimed that British helicopters responded and fired on a house near the police station to drive away the attackers.
A second top police officer said two British forces and an Iraqi policeman were wounded. He said five Mahdi Army fighters were killed and 15 wounded. Both police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
The Ministry of Defense in London said a handful of militants was in the area and that there was a small number of casualties from "indirect fire," military terminology for mortar or rocket attacks.
On the other side of Iraq's sectarian divide, an al-Qaida front group affiliated with insurgent Sunnis warned President Bush today that the Iraq war funding recently approved by Congress would not improve chances for success.
Congress passed the spending bill on Thursday, providing $95 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"With God's help, the money will heal no wound and change nothing at all," said a statement issued by the Islamic State of Iraq, posted on a Web site commonly used by Islamic extremists. The statement's authenticity could not be verified.
U.S., BRITISH FORCES BATTLE MAHDI ARMY IN BAGHDAD, BASRA
By Ross Colvin
May 26, 2007
BAGHDAD -- U.S. and British forces battled Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra after their leader, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, made a rare public appearance and called on U.S. troops to get out of Iraq.
Five gunmen were killed in an air strike during a pre-dawn raid on Saturday in the cleric's Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. A militant leader suspected of ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards was captured.
In the southern oil hub of Basra, the British military said "a number" of militia fighters were killed in an air strike overnight after they attacked British troops with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machineguns.
The attacks were believed to be in retaliation for the killing of the top Mahdi Army commander in the city on Friday by British-backed Iraqi special forces, the British military said in a statement.
A Reuters reporter saw eight coffins at a funeral for those killed in Basra. A hospital official said 22 others had been wounded. Residents said a helicopter had attacked a group of civilians protesting against the death of the Mahdi Army leader.
The fighting came a day after Sadr appeared in public for the first time in months and repeated his demand for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. U.S. officials say he has been in hiding in Iran, but his aides say he never left Iraq.
Some analysts have speculated that Sadr had come back to reassert his authority over his militia, which the U.S. military says has begun fragmenting into rogue splinter groups.
On Friday, Sadr sought to portray himself as a nationalist leader, offering to work with minority Sunnis, calling on his militiamen to stop fighting Iraqi forces, and criticizing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government for failing to deliver security and basic services.
The U.S. military described Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, as "an important figure in the Iraqi political landscape." Sadr's political movement holds 30 seats in parliament and is part of the ruling Shi'ite Alliance.
"We are cautiously optimistic. We hope he comes in with the desire to reduce levels of violence," a military spokesman said.
Sadr's return comes ahead of rare talks between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq on Monday on how to stabilize the country. The United States accuses Iran of fuelling sectarian violence with its support for Shi'ite militias such as Sadr's Mahdi Army. Tehran denies the charge.
The U.S. military said the militant leader detained in the Sadr City raid was "suspected of . . . acting as a proxy for an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps officer" and was part of a network that organized training for militants in Iran.
The military detained five Iranians in Iraq in February and accused them of being members of the Revolutionary Guards Qods Force. Tehran says they are diplomats and wants them released. [NOTE: In fact, six Iranians were arrested by U.S. forces on Jan. 11, 2007, and there is little doubt but that they are diplomats (http://www.ufppc.org/content/view/5570/).]
The five suspected gunmen were killed when an air strike hit a column of nine vehicles that were positioning themselves to ambush U.S. and Iraqi troops, the military said in a statement.
But Sadr City residents and police said the cars had been queuing at a petrol station. A Reuters reporter counted at least 11 burnt-out vehicles about 1 km from the station. Lengthy petrol queues are common in Iraq.
"A plane came and started bombing the cars queuing for petrol and the hospital," said a guard at Habibiya maternity hospital, which was also hit in the attack.
Police said two people were killed and five wounded.
In Basra, the British military described the situation as calm but tense on Saturday after overnight fighting.
British forces said they had responded "robustly" to attacks on their positions, using "a number of appropriate and proportional assets . . . including a low-flying aircraft."
British troops have stepped up operations against Shi'ite militias in Basra recently as they prepare to hand it over to Iraqi security forces. Britain is preparing to reduce its 7,000-strong force to about 5,500 within the next few weeks.
(Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla and Paul Tait and Aref Mohammed in Basra)
SHIITE CLERIC ENDS ABSENCE FROM IRAQ WITH FIERY SPEECH
By John F. Burns
New York Times
May 26, 2007
BAGHDAD -- The populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appeared in public for the first time in months on Friday after what American officials have described as a lengthy period of refuge in Iran. He delivered a fiercely anti-American sermon and offered himself in a new guise as a nationalist intent on bridging the divide between Iraq’s warring communities of Shiites and Sunnis.
Flanked by bodyguards and hailed by weeping loyalists, the 33-year-old Mr. Sadr made his reappearance at a mosque in Kufa, a Shiite holy city 100 miles south of Baghdad. The mosque has been Mr. Sadr’s favorite redoubt since he emerged early in the Iraqi conflict as the leader of the Mahdi Army, a powerful anti-American militia that has made him a crucial player in the struggle for power in Iraq.
“No, no, no to Satan! No, no, no to America! No, no, no to occupation! No, no, no to Israel!” Mr. Sadr told about 1,000 worshipers, frequently mopping his brow in the 110-degree heat of Iraq’s early summer.
He renewed earlier demands for a timetable for an American troop withdrawal, saying the Iraqi government “should not extend the occupation even for a single day.” But he avoided setting a deadline, perhaps because of widespread fears among Iraqi Shiites that Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated army and police are far from ready to stand alone against the groups aligned with Al Qaeda and the Baathist die-hards who have driven the Sunni insurgency.
Mr. Sadr coupled his call for an American pullout with an offer of a new alliance with Iraq’s minority Sunnis, thousands of whom have been killed or driven from their homes over the past year by Shiite death squads. Many of the death squads have been offshoots of the Mahdi Army that have struck in revenge for a relentless Sunni insurgent campaign of bombings aimed at Shiite civilians gathering at markets, mosques, weddings, and elsewhere.
Mr. Sadr blamed the Americans for the fighting among Iraqis, saying, “the invader has separated us,” Shiites and Sunnis, and that “unity is power and division is weakness.” Casting aside for the moment his oft-stated claim to be the only Shiite leader capable of offering Shiites protection against Sunni insurgents, he said he was “extending his hand” to Sunnis and to Iraqi Christians, a small and scattered community that has been reduced by thousands of families in the wave of Iraqis fleeing abroad.
He said he had ordered the Mahdi Army not to attack Sunnis and to end clashes with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and police, which he described as “our brothers.” But his strongest appeal was for a new alliance of Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians. “I want to say now that the blood of Sunnis is forbidden to everyone,” he said. “They are our brothers in religion and in nationality.”
He continued, “And let our Christian brothers know that Islam is a friend to our minorities and to other faiths, and seeks dialogue with them.”
According to American officials familiar with intelligence reports, Mr. Sadr fled Iraq in January for sanctuary in Iran. The Americans have suggested that the cleric, in fear of arrest or assassination, may have sought refuge in Iran before the American troop buildup ordered in January by President Bush.
Mr. Sadr’s spokesmen insisted Friday that he had remained in Iraq all along.
The cleric has matched his rare public appearances in the four years since the American-led invasion with an elusive politics, juggling alliances and enmities in a way that has made him a formidable and unpredictable force.
The pattern was evident again on Friday, when he left political opponents guessing why he chose to resurface now, just as the influx of nearly 30,000 additional American troops is moving to its peak and American commanders are reviewing long-deferred plans for a broad sweep into Sadr City, the vast Baghdad district that has been the base for much of Mr. Sadr’s political support.
One theory that has gained widespread currency is Baghdad is that Mr. Sadr, during his reported absence in Iran, saw his power in Iraq eroding. During those months, Shiites suffered ceaseless suicide bombings, some of them claiming scores of victims. Inevitably, the cleric’s absence led to talk among Shiites of his having chosen personal safety over his responsibilities to the people he claims to lead.
In addition, critical parts of the Mahdi Army have been gradually dismembered as American and Iraqi forces staged raid after raid on the militia’s cells, especially in Sadr City. The raids have had an opaque dimension politically, with American commanders and senior officials in the government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, a political ally of Mr. Sadr’s, contending that most if not all of the dozens of “terrorist leaders” killed and captured in the raids have been from “rogue” and “criminal” groups that have broken with Mr. Sadr.
For Mr. Sadr, the formula has had a face-saving quality, and, American commanders say, has helped eliminate elements of the Mahdi Army that were beyond the cleric’s control and posed the threat of future challenges to his leadership.
Mr. Sadr’s resurfacing comes at a time when mounting pressures in Congress and public opinion in the United States for an American troop withdrawal have led Iraq’s feuding political parties to look beyond the time when the American military presence will be the decisive element in the quest for political power.
Mr. Sadr, some Iraqi politicians believe, may have seen this as the moment to make his claim as a nationalist leader, something he has made moves toward before, only to have the attacks on Sunni civilians by Mahdi Army death squads define him as a mercilessly sectarian figure, at least in the minds of many Sunnis.
On Friday, the American military command announced the deaths of six United States soldiers in five separate attacks on Thursday, including two who were killed by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad and four others who were killed in attacks north of Baghdad in Salahuddin, Diyala, and Nineveh Provinces.
According to a tally on icasualties.org, a Web site that lists Pentagon death announcements, the latest deaths came on top of 90 other American service members killed during May, up to Wednesday.
With the total almost certain to rise above 100 before the month ends, May seems set to follow April as one of the worst months of the war for deaths among American troops.
Also on Friday, the British military command in the southern city of Basra said a joint raid conducted by British and Iraqi special forces had killed a senior Mahdi Army commander in the city.
The British command identified the man as Abu Qader and said he had been shot while “resisting arrest” during the raid on Mr. Sadr’s headquarters in the city. Reuters quoted a British military spokesman as saying that Mr. Qader was suspected of involvement in planting roadside bombs, weapons trafficking, assassinations, and participating in attacks on British troops.
--Ali Adeeb contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Kufa and Basra, Iraq.