Yesterday, hard-line Shiite cleric and leader of the Mahdi Army militia, Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to declare war on the US and Iraqi forces, unless they ended their crackdown on his followers.
Al-Sadr renounced Secretary Condoleezza Rice's surprise visit to Iraq as the entrance of terrorists. Rice dismissed the man as a coward, mocking him:
I guess it's all-out war for anybody but him. I guess that's the message; his followers can go to their deaths, and he's in Iran.
Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki, also a Shiite, is demanding that al-Sadr disband the Mahdi army, or face the disqualification of al-Sadr followers from elections this fall. Thus, the anti-American cleric is accusing the Iraqi government of exploiting his truce to stifle his political influence.
Al-Sadr's power lies in his control of the militia, which led four deadly rebellions against US forces in 2004. But, his followers also control 30 of the 275 Iraqi parliament seats. Last August, he declared a unilateral truce, contributing to reduced violence in Iraq.
Meanwhile, military clashes accompany the tense rhetoric. The US maintains that the Basra military campaign — which al-Maliki commenced without the US and that resulted in 40 militia deaths just yesterday — is not aimed at the mainstream Sadrist movement, but against criminals and Iranian-backed extremist groups.