BAGHDAD – Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr could end a ban on his militia's activities because of rising anger over U.S. and Iraqi raids against his followers, an aide said Friday amid concerns about rising violence and clashes between rival factions in the mainly Shiite south.
Al-Sadr's call for a six-month cease-fire has been credited with a sharp drop in the number of bullet-riddled bodies that turn up on the streets of Iraq and are believed to be victims of Shiite death squads.
Baghdad police found three people slain execution-style and bearing signs of torture on Friday, compared with the dozens often found on a typical day before al-Sadr's declaration. The morgue in the southern city of Kut received two bodies, including one pulled from the Tigris River.
Another five Iraqis were killed in attacks nationwide, including a woman who was caught up in a suicide attack north of Baghdad while she was walking to the market.
The U.S. military reported that an American soldier was killed and four were wounded in southern Baghdad Thursday when their unit was hit with an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP. The United States claims Iran supplies Shiite militants with the weapon, which fires an armor-piercing, fist-sized copper slug.
The U.S. welcomed al-Sadr's August cease-fire declaration but has continued to target what it says are Iranian-backed breakaway factions of his Mahdi Army militia, and appears to have escalated the campaign in recent weeks.
The military said U.S. paratroopers conducting combat operations Friday in the southern Shiite city of Hillah found a cache of weapons including 27 Iranian-made 107 mm rockets and two launch systems, each capable of firing 20 rockets at once. The military has announced a series of such finds in recent days as it seeks to bolster its claim of Iranian support for rogue Shiite fighters. Tehran denies the allegations.
The U.S. also said this week that American forces killed at least 49 Shiite extremists in a ground and air assault in the militia stronghold of Sadr City. Witnesses and officials said 15 people were killed — all civilians.
Al-Sadr nonetheless renewed his appeal to uphold the cease-fire and threatened to expel Mahdi Army members who don't in what his office called a response to questions from supporters about whether the cease-fire still applied in the face of the U.S. crackdown.
Al-Sadr aide Sheik Assad al-Nasseri said during a sermon in the mosque in Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, that patience with the U.S. operations was running out and the freeze could be lifted anytime.
"It was one decision which could end in one minute and then they will be sorry," al-Nasseri told worshippers.
He blamed U.S. and Iraqi security forces for killing civilians in the crackdown, singling out recent military operations against militia fighters in the mainly Shiite cities of Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, and Karbala, 50 miles south of the capital.
"The detention campaigns against al-Sadr's people were not conducted according to issued arrest warrants as they claim," he said. "They went so far as to assault women and children in front of husbands, brothers and fathers. These are shameful things. ... They are more unjust to us than the Saddamists."
Al-Nasseri also complained that an agreement to end violence between followers of al-Sadr and rival Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim had failed to yield tangible results.
A spokesman for Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the Iraqi government to stop the rampant violence, largely blamed on the clashing factions, that is plaguing the mainly Shiite south.
Warning that inaction could further alienate Iraqis from the political process, Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai said in a separate sermon in Karbala that 200 people had been killed in the past three months in the city of Basra alone and accused the government of failing to hold the attackers accountable. He also decried unabated kidnapping and oil smuggling in the south.
He urged Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and other political leaders "to activate a security operation and to hold lawbreakers accountable."
"It is the right of the citizen to enjoy stability and security. If these aspirations are not met, who will guarantee that the citizens will continue supporting the political process," al-Karbalai said.
In Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the woman shopper was killed when a suicide attacker detonated his explosives belt after he was unable to get through the main gate of the headquarters of the 1920s Revolution Brigades.
The brigades is a loose network of Saddam Hussein loyalists that recently broke with Al Qaeda and has seen several members join forces with the U.S. against the terror network as part of a power struggle in the volatile Diyala province. Three other women, along with a member of the brigades, were wounded.
Elsewhere in Diyala, a bomb exploded near a village south of the town of Buhriz, killing a farmer. Two civilians were killed in a mortar attack near Muqdadiyah, police said.
A roadside bomb struck a police patrol in the Daghara area north of Diwaniyah, killing two officers and wounding three others, a police official said.