BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Sunday called Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr a coward who's hiding in Iran and praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for his recent offensive against Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the southern port city of Basra.
The March 25 government offensive sparked an uprising by Sadr's militia, and on Saturday, one day before Rice arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit, Sadr threatened an all-out war against the Iraqi government.
The Sadrists have angrily accused Maliki's U.S.-backed government of trying to undercut their movement prior to provincial elections in October, when they will likely win many of the Shiite southern provinces from their Shiite rivals in Maliki's government. If Sadr's militia, conservatively estimated at some 60,000 men, were to rise up, it could mean the end of the drop in violence in Iraq and an inter-sectarian war that could make it more difficult for the U.S. to withdraw any further troops from Iraq.
Thousands of government soldiers already have deserted in Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City, refusing to fight the Shiite militia. Some deserted because of threats to their families, others from a moral objection by the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces to fight their Shiite brothers.
Iraqi government officials have told McClatchy that Maliki, who gained wide support from Sunni officials for taking on the Mahdi Army, went into the fight with no preparation and now is in a battle that he can't extract himself from. U.S. support for Maliki puts U.S. forces on one side of a bloody intra-Shiite showdown.
Rice used her visit to praise Maliki's choice to take on the militia. Fighting Sadr, who has declared that resistance against U.S. forces is legitimate, is an "internal Iraqi matter," she said.
"But clearly, the prime minister has laid down some ground rules which any functioning democratic state would insist upon, having to do with, you know, arms belonging to the state, not to -- not in private hands," she said. "The current circumstances come out of what I think is a very important and indeed appropriate action that the Iraqi government has taken."
Sadr has consistently called for peace since he froze his militia on August 29 and again in February; his freeze has been a major factor in curbing violence in Iraq. But Sadrists say their movement has come under attack continually since that time and they feel humiliated because they have been asked to stand down.
The Iraqi government seemed to ignore Sadr's "final warning" Saturday of a "war until liberation" if the U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces didn't stop attacking his followers. Iraqi soldiers continued their confiscation of weapons and the evacuation of government buildings in Basra.
Sadr officials said Sunday they have no direct orders to begin an all-out war against the Iraqi security forces.
"There is no indication that the ceasefire will be lifted from the Mahdi Army," said Adnan al Silawi, a Sadr spokesman in the Maysan province. "The statement was a word of warning to the government because the sons of the Sadrist trend are being annihilated."
Harith al Athari, a Sadr spokesman in Basra, said that Sadr's warning Saturday was to protect the Mahdi Army.
"Its objective is to stop the campaign to exclude and to harm the Mahdi Army," he said. "The Mahdi Army has not been broken, it has only withdrawn in obedience to Muqtada al Sadr's recommendations. We now await the reaction of the government to the statement."
Overnight fighting continued in Sadr City and Iraqi forces seized weapons in Basra as the battle with Sadr's militia continues. Sadr organized his militia to fight the foreign occupation and has been accused of thousands of sectarian killings.
Fighting in Sadr City, the militia's main Baghdad support base, continued over the weekend, killing 12 people, U.S. military officials said. Also in Baghdad Sunday, one person was killed and three others were wounded when two mortar shells hit the Kadhemiyah neighborhood.
Security tightened around the heavily fortified Green Zone Sunday as Rice met with Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Rice plans to travel to Kuwait to meet with representatives of countries that border Iraq.
(Ismail reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and wrote from Baghdad. Leila Fadel contributed to this report. Special correspondent Ali al Basri contributed from Basra.)