Firebrand cleric tells followers not to attack Iraqi government forces

BAGHDAD — Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr on Wednesday offered full support for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government if it refuses to sign an agreement President Bush has sought to allow semi-permanent stationing of U.S. troops in Iraq. Sadr warned at the same time that he would oppose any agreement between Iraq and the United States.

Sadr's followers have abandoned active resistance in recent months, as Maliki's government has asserted its authority in military offensives around the country. Sadr's statement, posted Wednesday on his Web site, said that elements of his insurgency had erred in targeting fellow Iraqis and called for a centralized resistance directed only against U.S. occupiers.

Declaring that resistance to an occupier "is a legitimate right by human reason and in Islamic and human law," he called on Shiite clerics to "issue their fatwas against signing any agreement between the government and the occupier, even if it is for friendship or any other purpose."

But on the issue of the status of forces agreement, he offered Maliki a deal: "I call upon the Iraqi government again not to sign this agreement and I inform them I am ready to support it popularly and politically if they do not sign it," he said.

Much of the 11-point statement seemed intended to curb the internecine warfare carried out in his name since 2006, when the bombing of the al Askara Shiite shrine in Samara set off a wave of retaliatory killings between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Before it abated, Shiite death squads were targeting other Shiites, and al Sadr — scion of a family of clerics who once drew respect from Shia and Sunni alike — had lost credibility with all but his most devoted followers.

The statement sets careful limits to resistance, condemning any freelance guerilla action. It also prohibits his followers from targeting civilians and government services, and bars any resistance actions in cities.

With provincial elections on the horizon, Sadr — who still has parliamentary influence through his Sadrist Party — may be maneuvering against rival Shiite factions and the ruling Dawa Party, said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"(The statement) isn't inflammatory. If anything, it's carefully calibrated to send a message to his followers, as well as all Iraqis, that politically he's ready for elections if they occur, and that he's reorganizing and strengthening his militia for what could be either a political or less pleasant struggle among the Shiia factions."

The statement seemed designed to push Maliki's government into a politically awkward position, Cordesman added. Public sentiment is strongly against any status of forces agreement that would permit U.S. troops to remain on Iraqi soil, but it seems likely the Iraqi military will have to rely on U.S. airpower and military advisers for years to come. is

And as long as the occupation continues, Sadr implied, he opposes not just a security pact but the trade and diplomatic ties that would come with it.

Also on Wednesday, an early morning raid by U.S. troops monitoring suspected associates of an al Qaida in Iraq leader killed a woman and two men near Samarra, a military spokesman said. The head of the local town council said they were a mother and her two grown sons, which the military could not confirm.

Another woman, who was in the house but not a target of the raid, was injured. She is not believed to have any connection with al Qaida in Iraq, said the spokesman, Navy Lt. Patrick Evans.

The spokesman said troops received fire as they approached the house, but were not able to determine where the shots were coming from. They fired into the house after perceiving "hostile intent" from those inside, but later found no weapons.

Rules of engagement governing the troops in the raid are classified, Evans said.

Sheikh Hatem Nsaief, head of the town council in Al Mukashfiyah, said to his knowledge the family had no connection to al Qaida in Iraq.

(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad. A special correspondent in Tikrit who can't be named for security reasons contributed to this article.)