WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials sought Tuesday to cast the rebellion in Iraq as the work of a minority, saying plans to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30 remain on target despite spreading violence.
Privately, however, senior officials said the spreading battle between the United States and followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could be a turning point in the yearlong U.S. effort to pacify and rebuild Iraq.
The U.S. approach is to launch targeted raids against al-Sadr's followers, but not to mount a major military strike on the cleric himself, the senior officials said.
The officials conceded that the crackdown is a gamble. If the raids degenerate into a battle between coalition forces and Shiites—which, they concede, is what al-Sadr wants—then the Shiites, who make up roughly 60 percent of Iraq's population, could turn against the U.S. occupation.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized spokespersons and because their views are at odds with the administration's efforts to remain upbeat.
The Shiite attacks represent a new level of resistance to the U.S. presence in Iraq. Most of the violence until this week has been perpetrated by members of Iraq's Sunni minority, who were dominant under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Publicly, Bush administration officials attempted to play down the significance of the growing violence.
"Sadr and his small number of followers—we don't see them as representative of a religious cause but rather as representative of political gangsterism," said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a radio interview that "the major problem we're having in the south right now is from Sadr. ... I don't think they reflect the views of all of the Shias in the south. ... Other clerics in the south have not come out in support of what Sadr is doing."
Aides to President Bush reiterated that they have no intention of changing the June 30 deadline for handing over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.
In any event, the handover in 86 days will alter Iraq's political arrangements, but not the role of U.S. troops, they said.
Separately, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that U.S. commanders in Iraq would get more troops if they requested them. There currently are about 135,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.
"They will decide what they need and they will get what they need," Rumsfeld said at a news conference in Norfolk, Va., with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.