Vol. 5 Num 1022 Tue. April 17, 2007  
Front Page

Sadr bloc pulls out of Iraqi govt
Insurgents kill 13 troops

Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pulled his six ministers out of Iraq's beleaguered coalition government Monday, upping the political stakes after a weekend of savage sectarian violence.

The Shia hardliner -- who has not been seen in public since October -- was angered last week when street protests failed to persuade Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to set a date for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie from Sadr's movement, flanked by allies from his 32-strong parliamentary bloc, announced the withdrawal at a Baghdad news conference, reading a statement from the cleric.

"The six ministries shall be handed over to the government itself in the hope that this government will give these responsibilities to independent bodies who

wish to serve the interest of the people and the country," it said.

Rubaie explained the reasons for quitting the government.

"The main reasons are the prime minister's lack of response to the demands of nearly one million people in Najaf asking for the withdrawal of US forces and the deterioration in security and services," he told reporters.

On April 9, a rally organised by the group, saw huge crowds of Shias gathering in the holy city of Najaf and demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops from the war-ravaged country.

Estimates of the true total size of the demonstration varied widely, with the US military reporting that 15,000 turned up while Iraqi officials claimed hundreds of thousands took to the streets.

Maliki has declined to offer any timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops, saying any decision on the timing of their departure will be guided by the security situation on the ground.

Sadr's bloc forms the biggest single political group in Maliki's fragmenting coalition, but the prime minister will be able to cling to power if he keeps the support of smaller Shia and Kurdish groups.

In recent months there have been clashes between fighters from Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and Shia-led security forces, while US forces have rounded up many militia leaders in raids around the country.

The young cleric -- he is thought to be in his early thirties -- is the wild card in Iraqi politics, with more power to disrupt than to encourage the country's small, faltering steps towards national reconciliation.

He has not been seen in public since October last year, and US commanders believe he is in hiding in Iran, a claim denied by his supporters.

Despite this apparent dispute between the former allies -- Sadr's votes ensured Maliki's election -- some analysts said the prime minister could use the defection to strengthen his own position.

Tareq Harb, a political analyst, said Sadr will not call a confidence vote to unseat Maliki while the prime minister will use the threat of a radical opposition to extract more aid from the United States.

"He will use this to exert pressure on the Americans to prepare for their withdrawal and intensify the training of the Iraqi troops," he told AFP.

In August 2004, US forces fought bloody street battles with Sadr's Mahdi Army, but since then he has preferred to be seen as part of Iraq's troubled political process.

The International Crisis Group's Iraq expert Joost Hiltermann warned that Sadr's movement remains unpredictable, but said that the Shia firebrand was gambling on being able to wait out his US foes.

"Sadr does not want to restart a fight with the Americans as there is a feeling that they will go away next year. He wants to wait it out. But he has to consolidate himself," Hiltermann told AFP.

"This is an internal debate within the Sadr movement. Sadr wants to consolidate his ranks. His decisions are being challenged by his own people.

"Sadr continues to be strong. He is the only popular movement in Iraq. He is going through difficult times as he has a loosely managed organisation which is not disciplined," he added.

There was tension in the southern city of Basra as a new movement called Jamahir al-Basra (People of Basra) organised a protest against the provincial governor.

Thousands protested in the centre of Iraq's second largest city against governor Mohammed al-Waeli who accused them of representing only his political foes, including Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

Waeli is a member of the Shia Al-Fadhila Islamic party which is the leading political force in Basra, but less important nationally, holding only 15 seats in the 275-member Iraqi parliament.

Meanwhile, insurgent gunmen attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint on a road in northern Iraq on Monday and killed 13 soldiers, army Major Qassim Abdullah said.

"A large group of terrorists drove up in five cars and opened fire immediately on the Al-Hadhar checkpoint, before making off," the commander told AFP in the northern city of Mosul.

Four soldiers were wounded in the attack, Abdullah added.

Hadhar is a remote town on a major road south of Mosul, 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of Baghdad in an area where Iraqi security forces often clash with Sunni insurgents linked to the al-Qaeda network.

Separately, two university academics were gunned down in Mosul itself.

Gunmen ambushed Talal Yunis, dean of the political sciences faculty of Mosul University, and killed him near the campus in the Shurat neighbourhood of northern Mosul, said police Major Mohammed Ahmed.

Attackers also murdered Jaafar Hassan Sadeq, a professor of art history in front of his house in the Kafaat neighbourhood in the north the city, said Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf al-Juburi.

Academics have become a target of choice for Islamist extremists opposed to liberal teaching in Iraq, and many hundreds have been killed or fled the country in the chaos since the US-led invasion of March 2003.