Militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr aired his sternest threat yet to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, vowing "open war" unless the U.S.-backed military assault on his followers ends.
"I am giving you my final warning," al-Sadr said in a written statement calling for a halt of attacks against his militia strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Al-Sadr's message urged the Iraqi government to end its crackdown and take the "road of peace." If not, al-Sadr said, "I will declare it open war until liberation."
The Shi'ite cleric's demand, issued late Saturday night in Iraq, amounted to his toughest talk yet in the crisis, which began late last month when Iraqi forces attacked al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in a bungled Basra operation. Fighting continued since then in Baghdad and areas of southern Iraq where the Mahdi Army has a strong presence. Officials in the Maliki government said Iraqi security forces swept into the section of Basra controlled by the Mahdi Army without resistance Saturday as U.S. and British bombs fell in the area in support of the operation.
In Sadr City, the militia's base in east Baghdad, heavy fighting erupted again Saturday night as the Mahdi Army continued street battles with Iraqi forces backed by U.S. airstrikes and American ground troops. At least 13 were reported to have died in overnight clashes.
Al-Sadr lashed out at the Americans as well, denouncing the "occupiers" for targeting his fighters with warplanes, tanks and snipers.
U.S. military officials voiced concern about the threat from al-Sadr, who had unilaterally declared a cease-fire before coming under attack from Iraqi forces in March.
"It would be particularly troublesome if Moqtada al-Sadr declared an open war," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of U.S. forces in southern Iraq. "I hope that doesn't happen."
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq. News of her arrival in Baghdad quickly spread through the city, where sandstorms swirled late in the day. Residents near the Green Zone heard at least one explosion in the vicinity of the compound, which has been bombed repeatedly by Mahdi Army fighters since the crisis began. Rice, who was traveling in the Middle East to attend regional conferences, told reporters she came to Iraq because she wanted to highlight what she described as political progress made by the Iraqi government towards reconciling the country's violently opposed factions.
"This is, I think, an important time," said Rice, who credited al-Maliki's confrontation with al-Sadr's Shi'ite militia with shoring up government support among Iraq's Kurds and Sunnis. "You've seen a coalescing of a center in Iraqi politics."Maliki, also a Shi'ite, had drawn criticism in the past by Sunni factions in particular for failing to crack down on the Mahdi Army, which is blamed for much of the sectarian violence in Iraq.
"There are those who questioned whether or not the prime minister was prepared to go after militias that were associated one way or another with political elements in his coalition," Rice said. "I think he's answering that question."
At the same time, Rice held the door open for members of the Sadrist movement to come back into the political fold as well. Al-Sadr is unlikely to allow his political loyalists to rejoin the government, which he has been boycotting for months because of its association with the Americans.
"We will never give up our resistance," said the statement from al-Sadr, who has long demanded a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
The crisis appeared to remain stalemated, despite the fresh fighting and sharp rhetoric. The advance by Iraqi security forces on Sadr City seems to have stalled, and it remains unclear what picture will be revealed in Basra in the coming days following the supposed gains by Iraqi troopers. Iraqi security forces have yet to land a major blow against al-Sadr's militia, and reports of defection and retreats by Iraqi troopers fighting militiamen continue to circulate.