Aides say al-Sadr will disband militia if ordered

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Aides to Muqtada al-Sadr called Monday for dialogue to resolve a violent standoff with the Iraqi government, saying that the radical Shiite cleric would disband his militia if senior religious leaders ordered it.

The overture came as Baghdad's main Shiite district of Sadr City faced continued clashes between al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia fighters and Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces.

Also Monday, a U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire after a roadside bombing in Baghdad, the military said, pushing the two-day American death toll to at least eight.

The attack occurred in an eastern section of the capital which has been the site of the fiercest clashes since al-Sadr ordered a cease-fire a week ago Sunday.

At least nine civilians were killed in fighting Monday in Sadr City, including five children and two women, pushing the two-day death toll to at least 25.

Hundreds of residents fled the district amid the clashes and economic hardship imposed by a security cordon and a vehicle ban.

Al-Sadr plans to hold a "million-strong" anti-U.S. demonstration Wednesday in Baghdad to protest the fifth anniversary of the capture of the Iraqi capital by invading U.S. troops.

Al-Sadr aide Hassan al-Zarqani said the cleric will consult Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and other top Shiite clerics in the holy city of Najaf if the government continues to pressure him to disband the militia.

Al-Zarqani said in a telephone interview that al-Sadr "will obey" if al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq, and the other clerics recommend that he do so.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in an interview Sunday with CNN, issued his strongest warning yet to al-Sadr to disband his militia or face political isolation.

He said al-Sadr's followers would not be allowed "to participate in the political process or take part in upcoming elections unless they end the Mahdi Army."

He was referring to provincial elections expected in the fall that are likely to redistribute power in Iraq. The Sadrists have accused al-Maliki's government and rival parties of trying to diminish their standing ahead of the vote.

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