Just a few hours before the much anticipated testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in front of several US congressional committees, the religious Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr encouraged his supporters to delay a planned anti-American demonstration. It was scheduled to take place on Wednesday, April 9 – the fifth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue.
“I call upon the beloved Iraqi people who wish protest against the occupation to delay this demonstration because I fear for them and I want to protect them,” he declared in an official statement published in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
In an address last week directed at all Iraqis, Moqtada al-Sadr called on them to raise their voices and reject “American occupation and tyranny.”
Moqtada al-Sadr also left the future of August’s cease-fire agreement in doubt: “The Mahdi Army works hand in hand with the Iraqi people for safety, stability and the liberation of their country. If we must break the cease-fire in order to achieve our goals, it will be announced by an official statement shortly.”
On the ground, violence continued in the southern parts of Iraq and in the Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad. Iraqi and American soldiers have clashed with the Mahdi Army for the past three days in the suburbs of Sadr City, close to Baghdad.
In Basra in southern Iraq, the confrontations continued Tuesday. According to our FRANCE 24 correspondent in Iraq, Tuesday’s call by the Iraqi authorities for the militants to turn in their weapons went unheard. The Shia leader intends to convene his religious council (composed of powerful Shia decision-makers) to ask if he should dismantle his militia, in accordance with the demands by the Iraqi military command.
According to Lucas Menget, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Iraq, “Moqtada al-Sadr is playing with time to show (to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) that he has the backing of the Shia leadership.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Moqtada al-Sadr appear to be facing off in the political arena. The Shia leader wants to enter many candidates in the next local elections. Lucas Menget believes he has a good chance of gaining a great number of seats thanks to the popular support the young Shia leader enjoys amongst the underprivileged. But the prime minister threatened Friday to exclude al-Sadr from the electoral process if he did not call on his militia to disarm.
Supported by Washington, the Iraqi government has been engaged since the end of March in a fratricide war against men who, armed by Moqtada al-Sadr, want the American troops out of their country. According to UN estimates, at least 700 have died and many more have been injured in these clashes.