Rice visits Iraq, slams Sadr

During a surprise trip to Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a dig at radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s pledge to launch an “open war” in Iraq. “He will still be in (neighboring) Iran,” she scoffed.


BAGHDAD, April 20 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice backed Iraq's crackdown on militias in a visit
on Sunday to Baghdad, where the worst fighting in weeks killed
23 after Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened all-out war.

Rockets blasted the fortified Green Zone compound where Rice
met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other officials and
praised their month-old campaign against Sadr's followers.

She had harsh words for the reclusive cleric, who on the eve
of Rice's visit vowed "open war" if the crackdown continues.
Sadr has not appeared in public in Iraq in nearly a year.

"He is still living in Iran. I guess it's all out war for
anybody but him," Rice told reporters. "His followers can go to
their death and he will still be in Iran."

Sadr's reply came in a statement sent to reporters,
condemning Rice's visit and saying the government should not
admit such "occupier terrorists into our pure land".

The U.S. military described a night of gunbattles and
helicopter missile strikes that killed 23 fighters in east
Baghdad's Sadr City slum and other militia strongholds.

"I would say it's been the hottest night in a couple of
weeks," spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover said.

Rice said she supported what she called a new political
"centre" that has backed Maliki's anti-militia campaign.

"It is indeed a moment of opportunity in Iraq thanks to the
courageous decisions taken by the prime minister and a unified
Iraqi leadership," Rice said in brief televised remarks with
President Jalal Talabani after they held talks.

A rebellion by Sadr's Mehdi Army militia -- whose tens of
thousands of black-masked fighters control the streets in many
Shi'ite areas -- could abruptly end a period of lower violence
at a time when some U.S. forces are starting to leave Iraq.

Mehdi Army fighters, who have bristled at past truces, could
barely hide their glee at the prospect of open conflict.

"We are very happy and eager. We are waiting for the end of
the ceasefire," a street commander in Sadr City who goes by the
name Abu Hassan told Reuters.

Ordinary residents of the slum say they have been living in
constant terror for weeks as nightly battles between Sadr
fighters and U.S. and Iraqi forces killed and wounded hundreds.

"The bombing and shooting, it reminds me of the 1991 Gulf
War," said student Bashar Mehdi. "I saw a man with his daughter
get shot by a sniper. The man was killed and we had to carry the
daughter to the hospital."

Rice told reporters she did not know how seriously to take
Sadr's threat of war, released in a statement on his website.

Sadr's threat dramatically raises the stakes in his
confrontation with Maliki, who has threatened to ban Sadr's
movement from political life unless he disbands his militia.


Maliki's crackdown has led over the past month to Iraq's
worst fighting in nearly a year, spreading through the south and
Shi'ite parts of Baghdad. Although fighting in the south has
mainly died down, the Baghdad clashes have continued unabated.

Maliki's crackdown has been backed by parties across Iraq's
sectarian and ethnic divide apart from the Sadrists themselves.
Rice said this support signalled a "coalescing of a centre in
Iraqi politics" that was working together better than ever.

As Rice met Maliki and other ministers, rockets could be
heard hitting the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound
where the prime minister has his office. Rice left the meeting
about five minutes after an all-clear signal was given.

Washington says the rockets are fired from Sadr City by
rogue elements of the Mehdi Army that it says are armed, trained
and funded by Iran. Tehran denies responsibility.

Maliki's initial operation last month in the southern city
of Basra went poorly, and U.S. commanders have acknowledged it
was carried out hastily and badly planned.

Since then, however, the government forces have moved more
carefully into Basra, and on Saturday they took control of the
neighbourhood that had been the Mehdi Army's main stronghold.

Sadr has pivoted back and forth between armed confrontation
and peaceful politics throughout the five years since the
U.S.-led invasion, while remaining hugely popular and staunchly
hostile to the American presence.

He led two anti-American uprisings in 2004, but joined the
political bloc that won parliamentary elections in 2005 and
installed Maliki. Last year his followers quit the government
for failing to demand an American withdrawal, but then Sadr
abruptly declared a ceasefire, winning Washington's praise.

As his stance has changed, so has the response of American
leaders. In 2004 they issued a warrant for his arrest, but more
recently they praised his ceasefire and started referring to him
with the respectful Arabic honorific "Sayyed".

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