BAGHDAD – Shiite clerics offered sharply different visions Friday in the showdown between government forces and Shiite militias — one predicting that armed groups will be crushed in Baghdad and another calling for the prime minister to be prosecuted for crimes against his people.
The contrasting views — given during weekly sermons — showed the complexities and risks in the five-week-old crackdown by the Iraqi government and U.S. forces on Shiite militia factions. The clashes have brought deep rifts among Iraq's Shiite majority and have pulled U.S. troops into difficult urban combat in the main militia stronghold in Baghdad.
But Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, shows no indication of easing the pressure on militia groups including the powerful Mahdi Army led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Iraqi and U.S. forces are pressing deeper into Sadr City, a slum of 2.5 million people that serves as the Mahdi Army's base in Baghdad. Al-Maliki also is seeking to increase leverage on Iran, which is accused of trading and arming some Shiite militia groups.
A five-member Iraqi delegation was sent to Tehran this week trying to try to choke off suspected Iranian aid to militiamen.
Haider al-Ibadi, a lawmaker from the Iraqi prime minister's Dawa party, said the envoys presented a "list of names, training camps and cells linked to Iran" but the "Iranians did not admit anything."
A key aide to al-Sadr told worshippers that al-Maliki is following the same path as Saddam Hussein, who persecuted Shiites and others seen as threats.
"Al-Maliki should be tried for the crimes he committed against his people," Shiite Sheik Asaad al-Nassiri said in a sermon in the city of Kufa, near the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Al-Sadr is currently in the Iranian seminary city of Qom.
Al-Nassiri accused the government of "slipping into the same trench the tyrant (Saddam) had slipped into by shedding innocent blood."
Dozens of civilians have been killed in the clashes in Sadr City, which picked up after al-Sadr threatened last week to wage "open war" on U.S.-led troops and refused to disband the estimated core of 60,000 Mahdi Army fighters.
Al-Maliki, in turn, has accused the militias of using civilians as human shields.
"The government will liberate Sadr City and clear it from gunmen," prominent Shiite cleric and lawmaker Jalaleddin Sagheer said during prayers at the Buratha mosque in Baghdad. "Those criminals have stocks of ammunitions but they will run out of ammunition within days."
Sagheer also predicted the government would root out militias controlling other Baghdad neighborhoods. Four Shiite extremists were killed Friday in the western district of Hay al-Amil, a religiously mixed area in southwest Baghdad, police said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for a double suicide bombing Thursday that killed at least 36 people during a wedding procession as people cheered the bride and groom in Balad Ruz, a town northeast of Baghdad.
Al-Qaida insurgents — mostly Sunnis — raked a police car Friday with automatic weapons, killing eight Iraqi policemen in the town of Qaim on the Syrian border, police said.
Three al-Qaida insurgents also fired on U.S. soldiers as they tried to stop a vehicle near the northern city of Mosul on Thursday, the military said. The soldiers returned fire, killing all three as well as the driver of the vehicle.
The attacks come amid heightened worries that al-Qaida in Iraq is regrouping after suffering a serious blow last year when thousands of Sunni tribesmen turned against the terrorist group blamed for most of Iraq's car bombings and suicide attacks.
The terror network announced April 19 that it was launching a one-month offensive against U.S. troops and U.S.-allied Sunnis.