Iraqi political leaders protest U.S. siege of Sadr City

U.S. Army soldiers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq on Friday
U.S. Army soldiers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq on Friday Maya Alleruzzo / AP

BAGHDAD, Iraq — About 50 leaders representing a variety of Iraqi political blocs took to Baghdad's Sadr City on Sunday, a stronghold of fiery religious leader Muqtada al Sadr, to protest the U.S.-led siege of that area.

The leaders promised to work together with Sadrists to remove insurgents and weapons in the area. But they also had six other demands of the government, including that it immediately suspend military activity in the city, supply basic services to residents and prioritize peaceful solutions over military conflicts.

"Whatever point the crisis reaches we will keep our efforts to put an end to it," said Ahmed Radhi, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni Muslim bloc. Radhi said the leaders formed a committee to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to solve problems plaguing Sadr City.

"We have a delegation meeting with Maliki to let him know the real situation going on in the city," said Nassar al Rubaie, a Sadrist. "We have lawmakers from different blocs and parties to come and watch the situation on the ground."

Lawmakers representing the Iraqi National Accord, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue and the Kurdish alliance also were present. The leaders said they were moved by pictures of civilian casualties as well as the health crisis plaguing residents in Sadr City.

The protest came just days after Sadr instructed his Mahdi Army militia to stop fighting the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces in Sadr City and the southern port city of Basra. The U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have continually battled with insurgents in both areas since Maliki led a siege of Basra at the end of March.

Sadr's latest message, delivered during Friday prayers, called for the bloodshed between Iraqis to stop, yet asked for a united force against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

"We want liberation of ourselves and our lands from the occupier," part of the message read. "To have a real government and have real sovereignty."

There has been relative calm in the east Baghdad slum of Sadr City in the past few days after weeks of pitched battles and bombings between Iraqi security forces and insurgents.

In other areas of Baghdad violence continued. Up to five people were killed in separate bomb attacks and gun battles in the Mansour, Zayuna and Bayaa areas Sunday. Insurgents also fired rockets and mortars into the Green Zone, the heavily fortified compound that houses U.S. and Iraqi administration offices. No casualties were reported.

But the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in Sadr City are not only fighting Mahdi Army militiamen, said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, the U.S. military spokesman for Baghdad.

"I don't think it's all Muqtada al Sadr (followers) and I don't think everyone is listening to him," Stover said. Insurgents are "continuing to attack us now even since Sadr's last message."

Stover said that while the areas of Rashid and Karrada are fairly quiet, there has been some violence in Sadr City, particularly the southern part of the city. Security forces have provided food, water, medical supplies, generators and stoves to residents there, he said.

"You are going to see life get a lot better for Iraqis in the south part of Sadr City," he said.

Iraqi Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta echoed Stover's comments, saying security forces are focused on providing services for residents in Sadr City.

"There is no siege in Sadr City," Atta said during a press conference Sunday. "The movement is normal, except in areas where there are still military operations."

(Ismail reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. Shashank Bengali and special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed.)