BAGHDAD, Iraq – A radical cleric whose uprising two months ago has left hundreds dead and threatened to enflame the Shiite heartland said Friday he would cooperate with the new government if it works to end the U.S. military presence.
Gunmen blew up a police station south of Baghdad in the fourth such attack against Iraqi security installations in less than a week.
The conciliatory tone by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) came during a sermon read by an aide to a congregation in Kufa, scene of recent fighting between his al-Mahdi Army militia and U.S. forces.
In the sermon, the fiery young cleric said "I support the new interim government" and asked his followers to "help me take this society to the path of security and peace."
"Starting now, I ask you that we open a new page for Iraq and for peace," the message said.
Al-Sadr had dismissed the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search) as a tool of the Americans. But he apparently softened his stand under pressure from mainstream Shiite Muslim leaders, who negotiated a truce in Najaf and Kufa this month between the al-Mahdi Army and U.S. soldiers.
In an interview Friday night with Al Arabiya television, al-Sadr's spokesman, Ahmed al-Shibani, said the cleric was ready for a dialogue with the government "on condition that it works to end the occupation and clearly announces to the Iraqi people and to the world that it rejects the occupation."
"It has to put a timetable for the end of the occupation," al-Shibani said. "This is the main and principled way to recognize this government and cooperate with it."
The U.S.-led occupation formally ends June 30 with the transfer of sovereignty to Allawi's government, and the U.N. resolution approved Tuesday by the Security Council sets a deadline of 2006 for ending the multinational military presence.
The resolution also allows both the interim government and the one due to be elected in January to terminate the mandate for the force — although that appears unlikely.
Remarks by both al-Sadr and his aide suggest that the firebrand cleric is bending to pressure from the influential, mainstream Shiite clergy while at the same time trying to preserve his image as a leader who stood up to the Americans.
Although al-Sadr's forces are still battling American troops daily in Baghdad's Sadr City (search) district, the Americans forced the militia to abandon Karbala and to accept a truce this month in Najaf and Kufa. The truce has generally held despite a flare-up of fighting Thursday between the militia and Iraqi police.
Allawi's government, which will remain in power until elections by the end of January, has made security its top priority. U.S. officials hope that after June 30, the Iraqis will assume more and more responsibility for their own security, allowing the Americans to lower their profile and reduce their own casualties as the November presidential election approaches.
More than 820 U.S. service members have died since the Iraq conflict began in March 2003. The latest reported death was of an American soldier who died Wednesday of wounds suffered in an ambush in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. command said Friday.
American authorities also hope the interim Iraqi government will win broad support among the 25 million Iraqis and take the steam out of the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency and the Shiite uprising al-Sadr launched in early April.
U.S. plans to reduce the American profile rest on the ability of Iraq's security forces to maintain order in the face of insurgency and widespread lawlessness.
However, insurgents have begun challenging that strategy through increased attacks on Iraqi police in a bid to sap morale and shake public confidence in the new administration.
In the latest attack, assailants arrived in seven cars Friday afternoon at the police station in Yusufiyah (search), 12 miles south of Baghdad, surrounded the building and opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, police Lt. Sattar Abdul-Reda said.
After the outgunned police fled from a side door, the attackers entered the building, rigged it with explosives and blew it up, Abdul-Reda said. He said police called for help from the U.S. military, but the troops reached the station five hours after the attack began.
On June 5, gunmen blew up a police station in Musayyib after killing seven policemen. The next day, gunmen blew up a police station in Sadr City, a Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad, after ordering policemen to leave. On Thursday, gunmen loyal to al-Sadr ransacked a police station in the holy city of Najaf after a 10-hour gunbattle in which the U.S. Army refused to intervene.