ROME – Iraq's radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said in an interview published Friday in an Italian newspaper that his Mahdi Army militia would not resist the Iraqi prime minister's planned security crackdown during the sacred Islamic month of Muharram.
Al-Sadr said that 400 of his men had been arrested and that he is also being targeted, prompting him to move his family to a secure location, the Italian daily La Repubblica reported.
Pressure is increasing on al-Sadr's militia ahead of a planned security sweep aimed at stemming the sectarian violence ransacking the Iraqi capital. On Friday, U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested one of the cleric's top aides in Baghdad, his office said.
"During Muharram, the Koran prohibits us from killing," the cleric told the Italian newspaper, referring to the Islamic lunar month marking the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Muharram starts Friday for Sunnis and Saturday for Shiites.
"Let them kill us. For a true believer there is no better moment than this to die: Heaven is insured," he was quoted as saying. "After Muharram, we'll see."
"It is not us they want to destroy, but Islam. We are just an obstacle," said al-Sadr. "For the time being we will not put up resistance."
The newspaper did not say how or where it conducted the interview with al-Sadr.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to crack down on Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents in a planned security operation to quell the sectarian violence in Baghdad.
Critics have charged that two previous crackdowns failed because the prime minister, who gets political backing from al-Sadr, was reluctant in the past to confront the cleric's Mahdi Army. The militia is blamed for sectarian killings targeting the Sunni minority that was dominant under Saddam Hussein.
"There are many of us. We represent a majority in the country that doesn't want Iraq ... to become a secular state, and a slave to Western powers," Al-Sadr added, according to the Rome-based daily.
The Shiite cleric said he is being targeted.
"For this reason, I have moved my family to a secure location. I even have had a will drawn up, and I move continuously in a way that only few can know where I am," he was quoted as saying by Repubblica.
"But even if I were to die, Mahdi would continue to exist. Men can be killed. Faith and ideas cannot," he said.