BAGHDAD, Iraq—Followers of the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took over state-run television Saturday to denounce the Iraqi government, label Sunnis "terrorists" and issue what appeared to many viewers as a call to arms.
The two-hour broadcast from a community gathering in the heart of the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City included three members of al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc, who took questions from outraged residents demanding revenge for a series of car bombings that killed some 200 people Thursday.
With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki relegated to the sidelines, brazen Sunni-Shiite attacks continue unchecked despite a 24-hour curfew over Baghdad. Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia now controls wide swaths of the capital, his politicians are the backbone of the Cabinet, and his followers deeply entrenched in the Iraqi security forces. Sectarian violence has spun so rapidly out of control since the Sadr City blasts, however, that it's not clear whether even al-Sadr has the authority—or the will—to stop the cycle of bloodshed.
"This is live and, God willing, everyone will hear me: We are not interested in sidewalks, water services or anything else. We want safety," an unidentified Sadr City resident said as the televised crowd cheered. "We want the officials. They say there is no sectarian war. No, it is sectarian war, and that's the truth."
Militia leaders told supporters Saturday to prepare for a fresh wave of incursions into Sunni neighborhoods that would begin as soon as the curfew ends Monday, according to Sadr City residents. Several members of the Mahdi Army boasted they were distributing police uniforms throughout Shiite neighborhoods to allow greater freedom of movement. The government announced it would partially lift the curfew Sunday to allow for pedestrian traffic.
In the Diyala province north of Baghdad, Sunni insurgents stormed into two Shiite homes, lined up 21 men and shot them to death in front of women and children, police there said. Later in the day, a Shiite television station showed footage of the victims' burials.
And in the western province of Anbar, a suicide bombing at a checkpoint in Fallujah killed a U.S. serviceman and three Iraqi civilians, according to a U.S. military statement. Another American and nine Iraqis were injured.
Also Saturday, Iraq's most prominent Sunni cleric made an appeal in Cairo, Egypt, for Arab nations to withdraw recognition of Iraq's Shiite-led government and said U.S.-led troops were complicit in Iraq's sectarian crisis. Hareth al-Dhari, leader of the militant Association of Muslim Scholars, declared Iraqi efforts toward a unity government "dead" and said the current violence is political rather than theological.
"The occupying forces have been giving cover to the militias and criminal gangs," al-Dhari said. "The government has been seen setting the atmosphere for them with the curfews to aid them in catching the victims and carrying out their attacks."
Al-Maliki's administration acknowledged it was powerless to interrupt the pro-Sadr program on the official Iraqiya channel, during which Sadr City residents shouted, "There is no government! There is no state!" Several speakers described neighborhoods and well-known Sunni politicians as "terrorists" and threatened them with reprisal.
"We'll obviously try to control them as much as we can, but when they (kill) more than 150 people in bombings, they have the right to speak," said Bassam al Husseini, one of Maliki's top advisers. "What are we going to do? We can't stop this. It's too hot right now."
Sunni politicians vowed to file complaints against the channel for inciting sectarian violence. Ordinary Sunnis were shocked to hear their neighborhoods singled out for attack on the government's station.
"I got four phone calls from friends telling me to change the channel to Iraqiya and see what's happening," said Mohamed Othman, 27, a Sunni resident of Ameriya, one of the districts mentioned in the program. "I think this is an official declaration of civil war against Sunnis. They're going to push us to join al-Qaida to protect ourselves."
Al-Husseini, the government adviser, also affirmed that a meeting between al-Maliki and President Bush would continue as scheduled next week in neighboring Jordan, despite the threats of al-Sadr's allies to withdraw from the government if it occurs. The Cabinet met for more than an hour to hash out an agenda for the trip, he said.
"The meeting will take place. That's the plan," al-Husseini said. "We need to straighten things up."
Al-Husseini said the top two items of discussion would be a report from the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission that will make recommendations for U.S. policy in Iraq, and a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.
"We want to talk about it," al-Husseini said, "to ask, `How long are they going to stick around?"
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.