Iraq’s government will confront armed militias and will not allow all-out war as threatened by populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said yesterday.
Zebari’s rebuke of Sadr followed a weekend of fierce fighting in the cleric’s east Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, described by the US military as the “hottest” in weeks.
In a statement on Saturday, Sadr vowed “open war until liberation” if the government refused to end a crackdown on his Mehdi Army fighters in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.
“Of course nobody will accept open warfare in Iraq or allow the rule of militias to be established,” Zebari said in Bahrain, where he will attend a regional meeting.
“The Iraq government will be very firm to confront all outlaw militias as was proven in Basra and other places,” he said.
Asked if the Iraqi government was capable of confronting Sadr, who led two uprisings against US forces in 2004, Zebari said: “Of course, anybody who challenges the authority of the state, the government has to move.”
Rockets blasted the fortified Green Zone compound in Baghdad on Sunday as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and voiced support for his militia crackdown and efforts to isolate Sadr.
Clashes between US forces and Shiite militiamen in Sadr City killed eight people late on Sunday, the US military said, and fighting was also reported in other areas of the capital.
Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover, a US military spokesman, said a US drone aircraft had fired a Hellfire missile at three armed men in Sadr City on Sunday night, killing all of them.
Two other US missiles killed four rocket-wielding men in the slum earlier on Sunday and US troops killed one gunman who attacked their observation post in the tightly packed district of 2 million people, the US military said.
Yesterday morning, US forces killed three people who fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a US patrol in the New Baghdad district, south of Sadr City.
Sadr’s threat of war 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 Shiite parts of Baghdad. Although fighting in the south has mainly died down, the Baghdad clashes have continued unabated.
Rice said this support signaled a “coalescing of a center in Iraqi politics” that was working together better than ever.
Both Rice and Zebari will attend a conference in Kuwait today on stabilizing Iraq. That meeting, which includes Iraq’s Arab neighbors and major powers, follows similar gatherings held in Turkey and Egypt last year.
Yesterday they were both in Bahrain to meet their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies as well as Egypt and Jordan.
“This is a qualitative leap for Iraq [to be[ participating in this forum,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters as he joined the meeting in Manama.
“This is very encouraging. It will help Iraq, it will help the Arab countries also,” he said when asked if he was confident of winning Arab support.
Rice and the top Arab diplomats made no remarks as they entered a luxury hotel conference room, but a US official told reporters that Iraq would dominate the talks, although Middle East peace and other topics would come up.