Massive Shiite protest planned in Iraq; more battles possible

BAGHDAD — Firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr on Thursday called for a massive demonstration against the "occupation" of Iraq on April 9, which would coincide with the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad and come just after U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to testify to Congress about progress in Iraq.

As Sadr called for a million people to converge on the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, he also warned the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to purge the security forces of members of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the rival Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and of Sunni Baathists.

"Some entities in the Iraqi government are trying to put us between drawing swords and degradation," Sadr's statement said. "That is why I say as the Imam Hussein said, 'Never will we be subservient.' "

Maliki, back in Baghdad after a week of directing an Iraqi security forces offensive against Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the southern port city of Basra, promised to "liberate" Sadr's strongholds of Sadr City and Shoala in the capital.

Abdel Kareem Khalaf, the Ministry of Interior spokesman, said from Basra that if Maliki's demand that Sadr's forces hand over their weapons to the Iraqi security forces by April 8 in exchange for cash isn't met, the weapons would be confiscated by force.

Maliki also challenged the assessment of most analysts that the Iraqi operation in Basra was a failure. "Basra was a prisoner, but it has been freed now," he said.

Maliki's and Sadr's dueling comments suggest, however, that despite Maliki's declarations of victory, a cease-fire in Basra brokered by an Iranian general and the Bush administration's claims of progress in Iraq, the violence is likely to continue.

Maliki's Shiite-led government is continuing to try to subdue Sadr's forces and consolidate its power, and the fiery Shiite cleric continues to try to end America's five-year occupation of Iraq and bolster his power.

The prospect of continuing political and military strife comes as American policymakers try to assess how to proceed. President Bush said he'd await recommendations from his military advisers, but many Pentagon officials think the Iraqi forces' inability to dislodge the Mahdi Army from Basra means the Iraqi government will continue to need American military support for some time.

In Basra, another coalition military strike killed three civilians, including a woman, Iraqi police said. The British military said it was looking into the incident. Security forces also detained the leader of Tha'er Allah, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in the south.

Civilian deaths in March spiked from 197 to 322 after the weeklong battle with Sadr's militia, according to the Ministry of Interior.

Maliki said that one lesson learned in Basra, where scores of men turned in their weapons to Sadr's forces and refused to fight their fellow Shiites, is that the security forces must be loyal to the government.

Maliki's actions have won him wide support from Sunnis, who in the past criticized him for being a sectarian Shiite leader who's stocked the security forces with Shiite militiamen.

"We have no friend nor foe," Maliki said. "Our friends are those who comply with law and comply to the interests of the Iraqi people, and our foe are those who violate law . . . . This is a battle on the ground, a battle in the media and a battle in politics, and we are not afraid to fight this battle in all its levels."

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed.)