BAGHDAD – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mocked anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as a coward on Sunday, hours after the radical leader threatened to declare war unless U.S. and Iraqi forces end a military crackdown on his followers.
Rice, in the Iraqi capital to tout security gains and what she calls an emerging political consensus, said al-Sadr is content to issue threats and edicts from the safety of Iran, where he is studying. Al-Sadr heads an unruly militia that was the main target of an Iraqi government assault in the oil-rich city of Basra last month, and his future role as a spoiler is an open question.
"I know he's sitting in Iran," Rice said dismissively, when asked about al-Sadr's latest threat to lift a self-imposed cease-fire with government and U.S. forces. "I guess it's all-out war for anybody but him," Rice said. "I guess that's the message; his followers can go too their deaths and he's in Iran."
A full-blown uprising by al-Sadr, who led two rebellions against U.S.-led forces in 2004, could lead to a dramatic increase in violence in Iraq at a time when the Sunni extremist group Al Qaeda in Iraq appears poised for new attacks after suffering severe blows last year.
In a warning posted Saturday on his Web site, al-Sadr said he had tried to defuse tensions by declaring the truce last August, only to see the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki respond by closing his offices and "resorting to assassinations."
He accused the government of selling out to the Americans and branding his followers as criminals.
"So I am giving my final warning ... to the Iraqi government ... to take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people," al-Sadr said. "If the government does not refrain ... we will declare an open war until liberation."
Rice praised al-Maliki for confronting al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which had a choke hold on Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. The assault was al-Maliki's most decisive act by far against al-Sadr, a fellow Shiite and once a political patron. Kurdish and Sunni politicians, including a chief rival, have since rallied to al-Maliki, and the Bush administration argues he could emerge stronger from what had appeared to be a military blunder.
During five days of heavy fighting last month, Iraqi troops struggled against militiamen, particularly the Mahdi Army. The ill-prepared Iraqi military was plagued by desertions and poor organization and U.S. troops had to take over in some instances. The offensive was inconclusive, with Iran helping mediate a truce. Fighting has continued in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, home to many of al-Sadr's followers.
"Some of the violence is a byproduct of a good decision," to take on militias and consolidate military power, Rice told reporters following a few hours of meetings and lunch with Iraqi leaders.
"That, I think, is what has given the sense to the Iraqis that they have a new opportunity, a window of opportunity," Rice said. "I don't think you would have seen this kind of unity," before.
Iraq's pokey progress toward national political cohesion has been a frustration for the Bush administration and a source of outrage for critics of the unpopular war in Congress and elsewhere. President Bush's decision to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq last year was supposed to give the al-Maliki government the elbow room to make bargains and pass stalled national legislation. A burst of activity in recent months has helped, but Iraq is far behind the deadlines it and the U.S. had set.
In AP-Ipsos polling this month, 31 percent said they approve of the job Bush is doing on Iraq. That's slightly above his low of 27 percent in December 2006. In this week's Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64 percent said the Iraq war was not worth fighting and 57 percent said the U.S. is not making significant progress toward restoring order there.
Rice's brief heavily guarded visit was not announced in advance in keeping with security precautions adopted by all top U.S. officials, who remain targets of the anti-American insurgents five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein.
With the top U.S. ground commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker looking on, al-Maliki told Rice that security has improved. She nodded agreement. After lunch with President Jalal Talabani, Rice smiled as the Kurd told her Iraq is enjoying a "political spring." Rice also met with a relatively new decision-making council representing Iraq's major sectarian and ethnic groups.
Rice dedicated a memorial plaque to four Americans killed in the Green Zone, the heavily protected compound that houses the U.S. embassy and much of the Iraqi central government.
The Green Zone has been considered relatively safe, but rocket and mortar attacks have grown more frequent over recent months and spiked in apparent response to the Basra operation. The U.S. blames Iran for supplying most of the weaponry.
At time it seemed "as if the Green Zone itself has been under attack," Rice told employees, but the effort is worthwhile. "It's been a long five years, there's no doubt about it."
Warning sirens sounded at least twice while Rice was inside the temporary embassy, housed in a beat-up Saddam-era palace. She did not visit the site of a new fortified U.S. Embassy set to open in a few weeks.
U.S. officials usually travel from the airport by helicopter because it's safer, but on Sunday Rice went to the Green Zone by motorcade because of a sand and dust storm.
Before arriving in Baghdad, Rice told reporters traveling with her that she is not trying to make a point about security gains in Iraq by visiting now.
"I think everybody knows it is still a dangerous place," she said.