BAGHDAD — Renegade cleric Muqtada al Sadr on Saturday issued a "final warning" to the Iraqi government, threatening an open-ended "war until liberation" if U.S. and Iraqi troops don't stop their offensive against followers of his militant Shiite Muslim movement.
Sadr's threat signals his growing fury with the joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive against his strongholds in Baghdad's Sadr City and in the volatile southern port city of Basra. Such a rebellion would end Sadr's eight-month-old ceasefire, which was widely credited — even by U.S. military officials — with curbing violence in Baghdad and throughout the Shiite south.
The U.S.-backed Iraqi military continued its two-front attack Saturday against the Mahdi Army and other outlaws, retaking government buildings from militiamen in Basra while waging fierce gun battles in the densely packed slums of Sadr City.
"I'm giving the final warning to the Iraqi government," Sadr said in the statement, which was released by his office in Najaf. "To desist and take the path of peace and denounce violence with its people…(or) we will announce an open war until liberation."
Fighting overnight in Sadr City, the militia's main Baghdad support base, killed at least five people and injured 19, according to officials at the district's Imam Ali Hospital.
U.S. air strikes and daily skirmishes have made life extremely hard for the area's estimated 3 million residents. Food rations are in short supply and hundreds of families have fled Sadr City in recent days. Residents expressed frustration and anger with both the Iraqi government and Sadr's political representatives.
"The missiles hit us without us knowing where they came from," said Najam Abu Nour, 38, who lives in Sadr City. "Where are the 20 Sadrist parliament members? Why don't we hear their voices? Why does everybody keep silent, nobody mentions the suffering of the citizens in this city?"
Gun battles also erupted between the Iraqi police and Sadr's followers near the southern city of Nasiriyah, where a curfew was imposed Friday. At least 20 militiamen were killed and another 37 were arrested in and around Nasiriyah, authorities there said. Two policemen died and 19 were wounded in the clashes.
In Basra, home to about 2 million people and most of the country's vast oil reserves, Iraqi forces backed by British troops stormed a neighborhood in the southern part of the city Saturday, seizing weapons and vehicles. Iraqi forces also discovered a large cache of weapons including rockets, mortars and bombs in the district of Hayaniyah, where Sadr's forces are concentrated, according to the U.S. military.
"The Mahdi Army didn't interfere in the clashes with the Iraq and foreign forces in Hayaniyah despite the aggressive procedures which were used by these troops against the innocent civilians by using different kinds of weapons randomly," said Harith al Athari, a Sadr spokesman in Basra.
"The criminal actions conducted by the government against the sons of the Sadr (group) in Sadr city, Basra, Karbala and the rest of cities...is what pushes us to settle accounts with everyone who acted wrongly," said Mohammed Hassan al Musawi, a prominent member of a Sadr office in Najaf. "And we will have in the next few days, a reaction to these criminal actions, and we might respond by a military armed uprising or other responses to end these violations against the citizens and families all over Iraq."
No deaths were reported Saturday in Basra, though tensions remained high as Iraqi forces laid siege to office buildings used illegally by the Sadr movement and other political parties. The standoff ended without bloodshed as the occupants reluctantly obeyed the government's demands to evacuate.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki faced criticism for moving swiftly into Basra last month without coordinating with U.S.-led forces, and later for having to dispatch aides to neighboring Iran to help broker an end to the violence. Critics said the prime minister had led his fledgling security forces into a no-win situation. Maliki's allies said the government had no choice but to continue the crackdown or lose face and damage the fragile administration's credibility.
"The government has now found itself in the midst of a battle that it had not anticipated," Ammar al Hakim, the son and senior aide of the leader of the ruling Shiite government coalition, said in an interview Friday. "It faced a dilemma: either to withdraw and give the impression that the Iraqi government is not ready and that its security institutions were not capable of handling the situation, or to go forward with progress and accomplish its aims no matter the cost."
Officials said Maliki's controversial offensive in Basra has now moved from outright battle to the process of disarming militants and gangs, as well as honing in on remaining pockets of militants in Basra. However, the underlying political disputes between the Sadrists and the government will require many more rounds of negotiations, Iraqi officials warned.
"The problems in Basra will take much longer to solve," said Ali al Adeeb, an Iraqi legislator and senior member of Maliki's Dawa Party. "Although I don't want to give a differing opinion (from the government's), generally speaking, military solutions always should be parallel to political solutions. We should continue negotiating with them."
(Ismail reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and wrote from Baghdad. Hannah Allam contributed. Qassim Zein reported from Najaf. A special correspondent who cannot be named for security reasons contributed from Basra.)