BAGHDAD – Cabinet ministers loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigned on Monday to protest the prime minister's refusal to set a timetable for an American withdrawal, raising the prospect that the Mahdi Army militia could return to the streets of Baghdad.
The number of bodies found dumped in Baghdad increased sharply on Sunday to 30 — from as low as five in recent days — in a possible sign of the militia's resurgence, even ahead of the six resignations.
The bodies, most of them tortured before they were shot execution-style, are widely believed to be the victims of Shiite death squads associated with the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr had ordered his fighters hide their weapons and stay off the streets shortly before the U.S. troop surge and security crackdown began on Feb. 14.
The departure of the six ministers, while unlikely to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, deals a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.
Members of the al-Sadr bloc in parliament confirmed the resignations Monday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadrist bloc, read a statement declaring that the ministers would "withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government and give the six Cabinet seats to the government, with the hope that they will be given to independents who represent the will of the people."
Al-Sadr, who has tremendous influence among Iraq's majority Shiites, has been upset about recent arrests of his Mahdi Army fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. He and his followers have also criticized al-Maliki for failing to back calls for a timetable for U.S. troops to leave the country.
The prime minister issued a statement later Monday saying "the withdrawal of multinational forces is linked to our armed forces' readiness to take over the security command in all provinces."
At least 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed Monday when more than a dozen gunmen hiding in the back of a truck ambushed their military checkpoint near the northern city of Mosul, police said. Another four soldiers were wounded in the brazen attack, said police Brig. Saeed Ahmed al-Jibouri, director of Ninevah police.
"When the driver approached the checkpoint and reduced speed, preparing to stop for a routine search, all of a sudden more than a dozen gunmen ambushed the checkpoint members and showered them with gunfire," another security official said on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.
Meanwhile, thousands upset about inadequate city services marched peacefully through the streets of Iraq's second largest city on Monday, demanding the provincial governor's resignation.
Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered near the Basra mosque, then marched a few hundred yards to Gov. Mohammed al-Waili's office, which was surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and police officers. The protest ended a few hours later.
Residents have complained of inadequate electricity, garbage disposal and water supplies in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
In Ramadi, U.S. forces mistakenly killed three Iraqi police officers Monday during a raid targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq members, the military said.
The U.S. military issued a statement saying its troops "coordinated their operation and no Iraqi police were known to be in the area." The Americans came under fire and responded, killing three men later identified as Iraqi police officers, the statement said. Another policeman was wounded.
Two explosions rocked central Baghdad midmorning — apparently the sound of mortar shells slamming into a schoolyard at Baghdad University, along the Tigris river.
No casualties were reported, but the blasts left residents skittish a day after cars, minibuses and roadside bombs exploded in Shiite Muslim enclaves across the city, killing at least 45 people in sectarian violence that defied the Baghdad security crackdown.
One week ago, al-Sadr mobilized tens of thousands of Iraqis for a peaceful demonstration in two Shiite holy cities, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall. At the rally, many participants called for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Al-Rubaie said the Sadrists' withdrawal from the Cabinet was because the prime minister did not respond to demands made at last week's demonstration.
He also relayed a demand by al-Sadr's movement, that all detainees held by "occupation forces" be transferred to Iraqi authorities "because this is part of sovereignty."
Al-Sadr's followers hold six positions in the 37-member Cabinet, and 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. Monday's order would affect only the Cabinet members.
"We will have a major role in working on a timetable in parliament. This will be our message to the government," al-Rubaie said. "Setting a timetable for the withdrawal will be done in parliament."
Other legislators said the withdrawal was likely to further destabilize al-Maliki's already shaky hold on power.
"The withdrawal will affect the performance of the government, and will weaken it," said Abdul-Karim al-Ouneizi, a Shiite legislator from the Dawa Party-Iraq Organization. Al-Ouneizi is from a different branch of the party al-Maliki heads.
One of the six, Saad Taha al-Hashimi, Iraq's minister of state for provincial affairs, sought to reassure supporters Monday that the Sadrists would remain influential.
"The movement, as it always has, will remain in society and the government to offer what is best and to push forward the political process," al-Hashimi said.
The trial of Saddam Hussein's cohorts accused in the mass killings of Kurds held a brief session Monday, then adjourned until May 6, to allow lawyers more time to prepare closing statements.
Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid — also known as "Chemical Ali" — is among six defendants currently on trial for Operation Anfal, in which more than 100,000 Kurds were killed in the 1980s.