BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed Iraq’s crackdown on militias in a visit on Sunday to Baghdad, where the worst fighting in weeks erupted after Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened all-out war.
Rockets blasted the fortified Green Zone compound where Rice met Iraqi officials and praised their month-old campaign against Sadr’s followers.
She had harsh words for the reclusive cleric, who on the eve of Rice’s visit vowed “open war” if the crackdown continues. Sadr has not appeared in public in Iraq in nearly a year.
“He is still living in Iran. I guess it’s all out war for anybody but him,” Rice told reporters. “His followers can go to their death and he will still be in Iran.”
A military spokesman said U.S. forces had killed 20 fighters overnight in a series of gunbattles and helicopter missile strikes in Sadr City, the east Baghdad slum that is a stronghold of Sadr’s militia.
“I would say it’s been the hottest night in a couple of weeks,” the spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover said.
Arriving on an unannounced visit, Rice met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and said she wanted to support what she called a new political “centre” in Iraq that has backed Maliki’s anti-militia campaign.
“It is indeed a moment of opportunity in Iraq thanks to the courageous decisions taken by the prime minister and a unified Iraqi leadership,” Rice said in brief televised remarks with President Jalal Talabani after they held talks.
A rebellion by Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia — whose tens of thousands of black-masked fighters control the streets in many Shi’ite areas — could abruptly end a period of lower violence at a time when some U.S. forces are starting to leave Iraq.
Rice did not take questions during the televised appearance, and later told reporters she did not know how seriously to take Sadr’s threat of war, made in a statement on his website.
Sadr’s threat dramatically raises the stakes in his confrontation with Maliki, who has threatened to ban Sadr’s movement from political life unless he disbands his militia.
Maliki’s crackdown has led over the past month to Iraq’s worst fighting in nearly a year, spreading through the south and Shi’ite parts of Baghdad. Although fighting in the south has died down, the Baghdad clashes have continued unabated.
The crackdown has been backed by all parties across Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divide except the Sadrist movement.
Referring to that support for Maliki, Rice earlier told reporters there was a “coalescing of a centre in Iraqi politics” that was working together better than at any time.
As Rice met Maliki and other ministers, rockets could be heard hitting the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound where the prime minister has his office. Rice left the meeting about five minutes after an all-clear signal was given.
Washington says the rockets are fired from Sadr City by rogue elements of the Mehdi Army that it says are armed, trained and funded by Iran. Tehran denies responsibility.
Maliki’s initial operation last month in the southern city of Basra went poorly, and U.S. commanders have acknowledged it was carried out hastily and badly planned.
Since then, however, the government forces have moved more carefully into Basra, and on Saturday they took control of the neighbourhood that had been the Mehdi Army’s main stronghold.
“It has not been the smoothest of processes but it is an important step that the Iraqi government has taken,” Rice said.
Sadr has pivoted back and forth between armed confrontation and peaceful politics throughout the five years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, while remaining hugely popular and staunchly hostile to the American presence he calls an “occupation”.
He led two anti-American uprisings in 2004, but joined the political bloc that included Maliki and won parliamentary elections in 2005. Last year his followers quit the government for failing to demand an American withdrawal, but then Sadr abruptly declared a ceasefire, winning Washington’s praise.
As his stance has changed, so has the response of American leaders. In 2004 they issued a warrant for his arrest, but more recently they praised his ceasefire and started referring to him with the respectful Arabic honorific “Sayyed”.
Sadr’s Mehdi Army has put up a fierce fight in Sadr City against Iraqi forces, who are backed by U.S. ground troops and air strikes. Fighting in the Sadr City slum has claimed hundreds of lives since last month.
Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Noah Barkin, Aseel Kami, Waleed Ibrahim and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad