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Anti-US cleric's cease-fire in doubt

By PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press Writer
February 20, 2008

BAGHDAD - With deadly attacks against U.S. targets increasing around Baghdad, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raised the possibility Wednesday that he may not renew a six-month cease-fire widely credited for helping slash violence.

The cease-fire is due to expire Saturday, and there were fears, especially among minority Sunni Arabs, that the re-emergence of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia could return Iraq to where it was just a year ago — with sectarian death squads prowling the streets of a country on the brink of civil war.

A surge of violence would also make it all the more difficult for Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to reach agreements on sharing power and wealth, and greatly complicate the debate in the United States on whether and how quickly to withdraw troops.

Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, blamed Iranian-backed Shiite extremists for a flurry of rocket attacks — including one Monday against an Iraqi housing complex near the country's main U.S. military base that killed at least five people and wounded 16, including two U.S. soldiers.

Smith also said one American civilian was killed and a number of U.S. troops and civilian personnel were wounded in a rocket attack in the southeastern area of Rustamiyah Tuesday night. He did not elaborate, but there is a U.S. base in the predominantly Shiite area.

He said those attacks and another on Tuesday were carried out by "Iranian-backed Special Group criminals," a term the military uses to describe groups that broke away from the Mahdi Army militia or refused to respect the cease-fire al-Sadr declared last August.

The U.S. military has angered some Sadrists by carrying out raids against breakaway factions. There have been calls from within the militia and its political wing to call off the cease-fire.

The cease-fire has been a key element in a three-piece puzzle that has come together to help reduce violence since mid-2007. The two other factors are the influx of thousands of U.S. troops last summer, and creation of Sunni-dominated groups funded by the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida in Iraq, the most extremist of the Sunni insurgents.

"Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's cease-fire has been helpful in reducing violence and has led to improved security in Iraq. We would welcome the extension of the cease-fire as a positive step," Smith told The Associated Press, using an honorific reserved for descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said that if the cleric failed to issue a statement by Saturday saying the cease-fire was extended, "then that means the freeze is over."

On an Internet site representing al-Sadr, al-Obeidi said that al-Sadr "either will announce the extension or will stay silent and not announce anything. If he stays silent, that means that the freeze is over."

Al-Obeidi told the AP that message "has been conveyed to all Mahdi Army members nationwide."

The ambiguity left many Iraqis uneasy.

"The drop in violence and the quiet which Baghdad witnesses is a clear evidence that this militia was behind all the chaos in the past," Sunni parliament member Asmaa al-Dulaimi told the AP.

She said ending the cease-fire "will affect national reconciliation and will further deteriorate the security situation nationwide. Resuming their activities, whether against the government or civilians, will lead to a new confrontation with them."

Smith said that under current conditions, violence was still dropping. He said the number of civilian deaths in Baghdad had fallen from 1,087 men, women and children killed in February 2007 to 178 in the first month of this year.

According to an AP count, at least 238 Iraqi civilians and security forces died in Baghdad last month, compared to 1,148 killed in February 2007.

Smith also said the number of execution-style killings carried out by so-called sectarian death squads had dropped some 95 percent, from 800 in February 2007 to below 40 this month.

The AP accounted for at least 640 bodies found on Iraq streets or in mass graves in February 2007, compared with at least 184 so far in February 2008.

But there has been a recent surge of attacks attributed to al-Qaida in Iraq.

On Wednesday, a U.S. soldier was killed and three were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the northwestern city of Mosul, the military said. The military has described Mosul as the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Separately, a roadside bomb killed a soldier assigned to Multi-National Division-Center, which is responsible for territory south of Baghdad. The military statement did not give a more exact location.

On Tuesday, three Iraqi children were killed and seven others wounded when they were hit by an insurgent mortar attack while playing soccer outside a military supply area near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.

In violent Diyala province north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber on Wednesday killed seven people and wounded 17, said an official in the provincial command operation center. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

The U.S. military and the Iraqi government have claimed that Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq are increasingly trying to use Iraq's most vulnerable populations as suicide bombers to avoid raising suspicions or being searched at checkpoints that guard access to many markets, neighborhoods and bridges in the capital.

Smith, the military spokesman, said two women used as suicide bombers in attacks earlier this month had undergone psychiatric treatment but that there was no indication they had Down syndrome as Iraqi and American officials initially had claimed.

He said the women used in the Feb. 1 pet market bombings had been identified as residents from the northeastern outskirts of Baghdad who were in their late 20s or early 30s.

The two attacks killed nearly 100 people, and Iraqi and U.S. officials said at the time the women appeared to be unwitting attackers.

"Both had recently received psychiatric treatment for depression and/or schizophrenia. From what we know now there's no indication that they had Down syndrome," Smith said Wednesday, citing records obtained by the military.

He also said one of the women was married but that neither had criminal backgrounds. He said it was not clear how they were linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, which the military has said was behind the bombing.

Associated Press reporters Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin and Bradley Brooks contributed to this story from Baghdad.

Original Text