Sadr changes his tune, calls Iraqi forces 'brothers'

BAGHDAD — Shiite Muslim leader Muqtada al Sadr, who a week ago threatened "open-ended war" against Iraq's U.S.-backed government, on Friday called on his followers to halt their attacks on Iraqi security forces and to concentrate instead on ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

An imam read the militant cleric's announcement during Friday prayers at a mosque in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Sadr stronghold where his Mahdi Army militia has been battling U.S. and Iraqi government forces for several weeks.

"So brothers in the (Iraqi) army, the police and brothers from the Mahdi Army, stop the bloodshed and let's be one hand to achieve justice, security and prosperity," the statement read.

Sadr issued a "final warning" to the Iraqi government on April 19 and called for an "open-ended war until liberation" if U.S. and Iraqi forces didn't stop attacking his followers.

His latest announcement repositions him in support of Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces, which his followers have battled since late last month, when U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched a nearly weeklong assault on Sadr's forces in the southern port city of Basra.

The commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force helped broker a cease-fire in Basra at the end of March, but the fighting has continued.

Sheik Salah al Obaidi, Sadr's top spokesman in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said that Sadr's April 19 statement was being manipulated to turn Iraqis against one another. Sadr especially doesn't want his forces to fight in residential areas such as Sadr City, Obaidi said.

"You are putting the lives of normal Iraqis, of civilians, under the occupation forces' hands," Obaidi said. Although Sadr wishes to fight the U.S. and foreign occupation, "he does not have the desire to use civilian places to start raids."

In Sadr's latest message, he emphasized that there was to be "no war among Iraqi brothers in one homeland, whatever sect or race they belong to."

He called the killing of an Iraqi by his forces "haram," or forbidden. He asked his followers to calm down and to solve critical problems peacefully. He emphasized a goal of a sovereign Iraq free of occupiers and foreign involvement.

Sadr's opposition to the U.S., however, remains evident in continued mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone, the fortified compound in Baghdad that houses U.S. and Iraq government and military offices, from his Sadr City stronghold.

This week, mortars were fired into that area, and insurgents have clashed with Iraqi forces all over Baghdad, targeting U.S. patrols and Iraqi police using roadside bombs and other weapons.

A bomb killed at least 11 people and injured about 30 others in Sadr City on Thursday evening. Sadrists blamed the Americans for that attack, while the U.S. military said it was Iraqi forces.

Mahdi Hakim of Sadr City said residents have no faith in the Iraqi government.

Iraqi political officials "have no real power while they support the Americans," he said. "They have to do the opposite; support the resistance against the Americans."

Hakim said he'll follow whatever Sadr says.

"We know that there were some mistakes here and there," Hakim said. "But Muqtada knows who is good and who is bad."

(Ismail reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Shashank Bengali and McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)

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