On Saturday, Moqtada al-Sadr threatened in a "last warning" to wage "open war" on the Iraqi government if it does not end its operations against his supporters, BBC News reported.[1]  --  The New York Times said that "it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force," emphasizing that "Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday."[2]  --  James Glanz and Alissa Rubin also reported that Iran's ambassador to Iraq "strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters" in Basra — though not in Sadr City, where Hassan Kazemi Qumi "condemned American-led operations against the Mahdi Army."  --  Reuters, however, took Sadr's threat more seriously, saying it "could abruptly end a period of lower violence at a time when U.S. forces are starting to leave Iraq" and "could not come at a worse time."[3]  --  Al Jazeera noted that in his statement, "Sadr also criticized human right groups in his statement on Saturday.  --  He said:  'Gaza was surrounded and everybody kept quiet.  And now it is [Sadr] City and Basra and everybody is quiet.  Where are the human rights.  Where are the laws you want to adopt for freedom and democracy?'"[4] ...

1.

Middle East

IRAQI CLERIC THREATENS 'OPEN WAR'

BBC News
April 19, 2008

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7356875.stm

Radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr has threatened to wage "open war" on the Baghdad government if it does not halt operations against his supporters.

Moqtada Sadr said he was giving the government a "last warning," and urged it to take "the path of peace."

His statement came as Iraqi troops, with U.S. and U.K. support, clashed with his forces in Baghdad and the south.

In August the cleric's militia declared a ceasefire, pledging not to attack government or foreign soldiers.

"I'm giving the last warning and the last word to the Iraqi government," Moqtada Sadr said.

"Either it comes to its senses and takes the path of peace . . . or it will be (seen as) the same as the previous government," he added, referring to former President Saddam Hussein's fallen regime.

"If it does not stop the militias that have infiltrated the government, then we will declare an open war until liberation," he added.

WALL CONTROVERSY

Moqtada Sadr issued the warning after soldiers launched fresh operations against positions being held by his Mahdi Army.

The BBC's Crispin Thorold in Baghdad says the government is slowly beginning to establish a presence in areas where the Mahdi Army had been all-powerful.

In Baghdad the U.S. army and Iraqi troops clashed with militiamen in the area of Sadr City. Local hospitals say that seven people died.

Sadr City is the site of frequent confrontations between Shia fighters and Iraqi and coalition forces.

Tensions have been increased by the construction of a wall in the district by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

They say the wall aims to hamper the militants who regularly fire mortars at the Green Zone, Baghdad's huge diplomatic and government compound.

Also on Saturday, clashes were reported between Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Nasiriya.

BATTLE IN BASRA

Meanwhile, in the southern city of Basra, Iraqi security forces, backed by British artillery and American warplanes, moved into the district of Hayania, where Moqtada Sadr also has strong support.

The operation, which apparently sought to seize illegally held weapons, opened with a massive display of firepower by supporting U.S. and U.K. forces, who pounded a deserted area of the district with artillery.

"British artillery and U.S. planes conducted a firepower demonstration to the west of Hayania, to give a demonstration of the firepower available if required," said a spokesman for British forces, Major Tom Holloway.

BBC sources said the operation first met fierce resistance. But the latest reports say the violence has subsided.

Basra was the scene of intense fighting some three weeks ago, after Iraqi forces made an attempt to disarm militias operating in the city.

That operation ground to a halt when the army faced considerable resistance from the militias, including the Mahdi Army.

The fighting spread to various parts of Iraq, hundreds of people were killed, and thousands of civilians were trapped in their homes for days on end.

The militias were never disarmed, only promising to take their weapons off the streets.

The operation was criticized by U.S. commanders as poorly planned and as failing to achieve its stated aims.

Gen. Mohan al Furaiji, the architect of the operation, was moved back to Baghdad, but the Iraqi government insisted he was not being fired.

2.

World

Middle East

IRAQI FORCES TAKE LAST BASRA AREAS FROM SADR FORCE
By James Glanz and Alissa J. Rubin

New York Times
April 20, 2008

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/world/middleeast/20iraq.html

[PHOTO CAPTION: Iraqi forces moved into the Hayaniya neighborhood of Basra with little resistance on Saturday. By the evening, with American and British help, Basra was calm.]

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi soldiers took control of the last bastions of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia in Basra on Saturday, and Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad strongly endorsed the Iraqi government’s monthlong military operation against the fighters.

By Saturday evening, Basra was calm, but only after air and artillery strikes by American and British forces cleared the way for Iraqi troops to move into the Hayaniya district and other remaining Mahdi Army militia strongholds and begin house-to house searches, Iraqi officials said. Iraqi troops were meeting little resistance, said Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Baghdad.

Despite the apparent concession of Basra, Mr. Sadr issued defiant words on Saturday night. In a long statement read from the loudspeakers of his Sadr City Mosque, he threatened to declare “war until liberation” against the government if fighting against his militia forces continued.

But it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force, especially given that his militia’s actions in Basra followed a pattern seen again and again: the Mahdi militia battles Iraqi government troops to a standstill and then retreats.

Why his fighters have clung to those fight-then-fade tactics is unknown. But American military and civilian officials have repeatedly claimed that Mahdi Army units trained and equipped by Iran had played a major role in the unexpectedly strong resistance that government troops met in Basra.

Whether to counter those allegations or simply because, as many Iraqis have recently speculated, Mr. Sadr’s stock has recently fallen in Iranian eyes, the Iranian ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, on Saturday expressed his government’s strong support for the Iraqi assault on Basra. He even called the militias in Basra “outlaws,” the same term that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has used to describe them.

“The idea of the government in Basra was to fight outlaws,” Mr. Qumi said. “This was the right of the government and the responsibility of the government. And in my opinion the government was able to achieve a positive result in Basra.”

Strikingly, however, Ambassador Qumi simultaneously condemned American-led operations against the Mahdi Army in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City, where major new clashes broke out on Saturday. He said the American-backed fighting in that densely populated district was causing only civilian casualties rather than achieving any positive result.

“The American insistence on coming and having a siege on a couple of million people in one area and striking them with warplanes and shelling them randomly -- many innocent people will be killed through this operation,” Mr. Qumi said. “The result of this operation will be the sabotage and destruction of buildings, and many people will leave their homes.”

The events in Basra, in contrast with the Mahdi Army’s continued fighting in Sadr City, renewed questions about where the Sadrist movement stands in Iraq’s unstable political landscape. While his faction has often played the spoiler in Baghdad’s Shiite political structure, his followers also represent the poor and disenfranchised, who were battered under Saddam Hussein, making it difficult for the government to write them off.

In his statement on Saturday, Mr. Sadr seemed to be claiming the moral high ground despite having to cede territory in Basra. He compared the Iraqi government to that of Saddam Hussein and said that the government had become the enemy along with Sunni extremists and the Americans.

“You are using the politics of Saddam and his followers when he banned the Friday Prayer and displaced women and children; when he created divisions among groups of Iraqis; and used the politics of assassination,” the statement said. “If you do not stop we will announce a war until liberation.”

Still, at one point he sounded an almost plaintive note, saying, “This government has forgotten that we are their brothers and were part of them.”

The combination of the Iranian ambassador’s stance and the retreat of militia fighters in Basra may give fuel to accusations by some American and Sunni Arab officials that Iran has taken a powerful and increasingly open role in Iraqi politics.

Mr. Maliki’s abrupt assault on Basra last month has been widely criticized as being poorly planned. But it is believed to have been encouraged by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a crucial element of his governing coalition. Many members of the armed wing of the council, called the Badr Organization, joined the government’s security forces early in the Iraq conflict, and have been battling the Sadr-led forces. Mr. Sadr’s political movement is also an important rival of the Supreme Council.

Because leaders of the council and its armed wing spent years and sometimes decades in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s regime, it was assumed that the silence of the Badr Organization during the Basra offensive indicated that Iran had given at least tacit approval for the move.

Mr. Qumi’s statements now give strong support to that view. They also suggest that Iran, which has historically tried to play Shiite groups against one another in Iraq, has decided to pull back on its support for the group that American officials have continually pointed to as an Iranian-trained troublemaker: Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Whether that means that the stock of Mr. Sadr himself has fallen is unknown, although Mr. Qumi seemed to avoid discussing the cleric and certainly refused to give him any credit for ending the fighting in Basra. At one point during the fighting, members of the Iraqi Parliament traveled to Iran, where Mr. Sadr is believed to be residing, and helped negotiate the terms of a truce.

The developments came as sporadic fighting continued to in some parts of Sadr City on Saturday night. Americans continued to strike Mahdi Army positions in the district’s southern sector, which Iraqi and American troops now largely control.

The fighting overnight Friday and into Saturday was worse than earlier in the week, and wounded at least 66 people, who were taken to the Imam Ali hospital in Sadr City.

Residents described mortar and rocket fire as well as gun battles, with the militias largely initiating the fighting in recent days. And an American reporter traveling with American and Iraqi troops saw that several additional companies had been sent into Sadr City on Saturday.

The Iraqi troops began clearing side streets and alleyways in the southern sector with the aim of gaining full control of the area. Meanwhile, the militias continued to try to dislodge them, infiltrating from the more northern part of Sadr City.

American forces are supporting the Iraqi Army with attack aircraft, medical care, and some help with logistics. And while the Iraqi operation is principally focused on holding ground in southern Sadr City, the American focus in the area is mostly on stopping rocket and mortar attacks on the nearby Green Zone.

The latest offensive in Basra started at 6 a.m. Saturday when American and British warplanes and artillery pounded Hayaniya, in northern Basra. The neighborhood had remained a Mahdi Army stronghold after earlier operations had ousted them from the center of the city. “The assault was against known criminal rocket and mortar sites west of Hayaniya,” according to a statement issued in Baghdad by the American military.

The bombing campaign, which could be heard throughout the city, according to residents, prepared the ground for Iraqi troops, who by evening were moving through the district doing house-to-house searches for weapons caches and materials for roadside bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s.

Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Freiji, who is one of the officers in charge of the Basra operation, told reporters that “a few days ago, we told the insurgents to give up their heavy weapons and the I.E.D.’s. But until yesterday night they shot mortar shells and planted improvised explosive devices in Hayaniya’s streets. They are gangsters who are fighting under the name of Mahdi Army.”

Both Mr. Sadr’s office in Basra and the Iraqi general in charge of the operation said there had been little resistance from gunmen there. Aides to Mr. Sadr said that that was because the cleric had ordered his fighters to withdraw. “The Iraqi Army entered Hayaniya and the Mahdi Army did not resist because they made a commitment to obey Moqtada al-Sadr’s order,” said Harith al-Athari, the head of the Sadr office in Basra.

The American military said in a statement that British and American military training teams were working alongside Iraqi soldiers and that the Iraqi military consulted with senior British and American officers before undertaking this stage in the battle.

The consultation is a contrast to the early days of the Basra operation, personally led by Mr. Maliki, when Iraqi troops moved in on Basra, with little prior consultation with either the Americans the British, the coalition troops who have a base in the area. Later, members of Mr. Maliki’s inner circle conceded that they had a communications problem, especially with the British, that needed to be rectified.

--Michael Gordon and Ahmad Fadam contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of the New York Times from Basra and Baghdad.

3.

International

CLERIC SADR THREATENS "OPEN WAR" ON IRAQ GOVERNMENT
By Dean Yates and Wisam Mohammed

Reuters
April 19, 2008

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=4686124

BAGHDAD -- Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday threatened an "open war" against the Iraqi government unless it halted a crackdown by Iraqi and U.S. security forces on his followers.

The specter of a full-scale uprising by Sadr sharply raises the stakes in his confrontation with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has threatened to ban the anti-American cleric's movement from political life unless he disbands his militia.

A rebellion by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia -- which has tens of thousands of fighters -- could abruptly end a period of lower violence at a time when U.S. forces are starting to leave Iraq.

"I'm giving the last warning and the last word to the Iraqi government -- either it comes to its senses and takes the path of peace . . . or it will be (seen as) the same as the previous government," Sadr said, referring to Saddam Hussein's fallen regime, without elaborating.

"If they don't come to their senses and curb the infiltrated militias, then we will declare an open war until liberation."

Sadr's movement accuses other Shi'ite parties of getting their militias into the Iraqi security forces, especially in southern Shi'ite Iraq where various factions are competing for influence in a region home to most of Iraq's oil output.

Sadr launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.

His movement then entered politics and backed Maliki's rise to power in 2006. But the youthful Sadr split with Maliki, a fellow Shi'ite, a year ago when the prime minister refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

"Do you want a third uprising?" Sadr said, adding that he wanted Iraq's Shi'ite clerical establishment to set a date for the departure of American troops.

In Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, one Mahdi Army commander said he was "thrilled" about the statement.

"We will wait until tomorrow to see the response of the government. Otherwise they will see black days like they have never seen before in their life."

Sadr's threat could not come at a worse time. On Friday, U.S. forces said they had intelligence suggesting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, pushed out of Baghdad and Western Iraq last year, was plotting a return to the capital to stage major bomb attacks.

ROCKETS HIT HOSPITAL

In Baghdad, police described battles between security forces and gunmen that began on Friday in Sadr City as among the heaviest in the capital since Maliki launched a crackdown on the Mahdi Army in the southern city of Basra late last month.

Police said 12 people had been killed in the Shi'ite slum. Hospitals said they received more than 130 wounded overnight.

Late on Saturday, Ali Bustan, head of the health directorate in the eastern section of Baghdad, said three rockets hit the Sadr Hospital in the slum. It was unclear if there were any casualties. The U.S. military said it was not to blame.

Bustan said the bodies of three women had been brought in along with 40 wounded people following fresh clashes.

Maliki has threatened to ban Sadr's movement from provincial elections this year if the cleric does not disband his militia.

In response, Sadr has threatened to formally scrap a ceasefire he imposed on the Mahdi Army last August, which has already been hanging by a thread given recent clashes.

In his statement, Sadr did not refer to the truce, but his spokesman in the holy city of Najaf, Salah al-Ubaidi, said the cleric was not bluffing.

"We mean every word," Ubaidi told Reuters.

Sadr issued his warning after Iraqi soldiers swooped on the Mahdi Army's stronghold in Basra. Iraqi officials said they now controlled the bastion, known as the Hayaniya district.

The dawn raid by government troops there was backed by a thunderous bombardment by U.S. warplanes and British artillery.

Maliki's initial crackdown on the militia in Basra last month was criticized by U.S. commanders as poorly planned.

It failed to drive the Mahdi Army from the streets and sparked battles across the south and in Sadr City, the cleric's Baghdad stronghold. The government dismissed 1,300 soldiers and police for refusing to fight in Basra, the port for most of Iraq's oil exports.

On Saturday by contrast, Harith al-Idhari, head of the Sadr office in Basra, said the militia had not put up any resistance, in observance of a ceasefire declared by the cleric.

Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an interior ministry spokesman, described the Basra operation as a major success.

(Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Khaled Farhan, Noah Barkin and Aws Qusay in Baghdad; Editing by Jon Boyle)

4.

Middle East

AL-SADR THREATENS 'OPEN WAR

Al Jazeera
April 19, 2008

http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/A09AFB89-4D59-4B6C-B548-50C0777A00F5.htm

Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia Muslim leader, has threatened to declare "open war" if a security crackdown by Iraqi and U.S. forces against his loyalists is not called off.

He said in a statement on Saturday that he was giving a final warning to the Shia-led Iraqi government "to take the path of peace and stop violence against its own people."

"If it does not stop the militias that have infiltrated the government, then we will declare a war until liberation," he said.

The warning comes nearly four weeks after Iraqi forces launched a crackdown against Shia militia groups in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City.

The al-Mahdi army, al-Sadr's own force, is concentrated in both the areas.

IRAQI ALLIANCE

Al-Sadr also accused the Iraqi government of being too close to the U.S. military.

"The occupation has made us target of its planes, tanks, air strikes, and snipers. Without our support this government would not have been formed," he said.

"But with its alliance with the occupier [the Iraqi government] is not independent and sovereign as we would like it to be."

Iraqi security forces moved against Shia militia groups in Basra on March 25, on the order of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, himself a Shia.

U.S. and British forces gave reconnaissance and tactical support to the Iraqi military during the crackdown, which triggered clashes across Shia areas of Iraq, including Sadr City, al-Sadr's stronghold.

Although al-Sadr called his al-Mahdi Army fighters off the streets of Basra soon after the violence, raids by government forces have continued.

Hundreds of people have been killed and wounded since the operation.

RIGHTS GROUPS CRITICIZED

At least 13 people were killed and 80 injured in Sadr City on Saturday, while Iraqi troops took control of a northern district of Basra.

Troops entered the Hayaniyah district of Basra and took control after several hours, major general Abdel Karim Khalaf, an interior ministry spokesman, said.

"We launched an operation in the morning. There was some exchange of fire. The operation is now over in Hayaniyah without any strong resistance," he said.

Sadr also criticized human right groups in his statement on Saturday.

He said: "Gaza was surrounded and everybody kept quiet. And now it is [Sadr] City and Basra and everybody is quiet.

"Where are the human rights. Where are the laws you want to adopt for freedom and democracy?"

The Iraqi and U.S. military are building a security wall through Sadr City.

The barrier is aimed at stopping fighters from firing rockets towards the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government and U.S. embassy is situated.