Iraq cleric pursues U.S. troop ban in strongholds
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is leading a campaign to bar U.S. troops from cities and government buildings to pressure Baghdad and Washington to remove American forces from Iraq by year-end, officials said.
Members of Sadr's political movement have asked about 10 provincial councils in central and southern Iraq, including the capital, Baghdad, and the oil hub, Basra, to pass resolutions to keep U.S. forces out of cities and Iraqi facilities.
Last week Basra's council approved such a resolution and demanded they leave any civilian buildings used as army bases, including the city airport, provincial officials said.
On Monday, U.S. soldiers protecting a provincial reconstruction team were asked to leave Basra council's building or give up their weapons, officials said.
Sadr's demand that U.S. forces leave by year-end and his threat to revive his Mehdi Army if they don't are testing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's fragile coalition.
The remaining 47,000 U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq by December 31 under a bilateral security agreement. Maliki has called on political leaders to discuss whether a contingent should stay on to support and train local armed forces.
Baghdad is supposed to deliver its final decision on the issue before August.
"It is a Sadrist campaign created by Sayyid Moqtada, and Sadr blocs in all provinces, totally, have adopted this resolution," Sadrist politician Mazin al-Mazini, a Basra provincial council member, said.
Sadr, the Shi'ite cleric whose Mehdi Army fought U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, can have a major impact in central and southern areas, where his followers and allies represent about two-thirds of council members.
"We are trying to prove that the Iraqi people are not willing to extend the U.S. troops' presence in this country any longer," Sadrist lawmaker Rafie Jabbar Noshi said. "We have succeeded in three provinces, Basra, Wasit and Maysan, and we are working on the others."
Colonel Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said he was not aware of the Sadrist campaign in the provincial councils but was not surprised by it.
"We continue to work with the government of Iraq in accordance with the security agreement signed between our two nations ... This agreement is not contingent on provincial resolutions," Johnson said.
In regard to the Basra incident on Monday, Johnson confirmed that U.S. forces had escorted provincial reconstruction team (PRT) members to the council building but did not offer further details.
A ban could slow the work of these teams, which were set up to help rebuild Iraq. But Basra provincial council member Kadhim al-Moussawi, a Sadrist, said Iraqi forces could protect them.
"The PRTs' work won't be affected because we have offered an alternative solution. But if they insist that U.S. troops secure their movements, this is their business," Moussawi said.
Sadr's militia laid down its arms after Maliki sent Iraqi forces against it in 2008, but U.S. and Iraqi officials say a Mehdi Army faction, the Promised Day Brigade, is still behind attacks on American troops.
The brigade claimed responsibility on Sunday for 10 rocket and roadside bomb attacks targeting U.S. forces last week, including one in which ten mortars were launched at a joint Iraqi-U.S. base in the Baladiyat district of eastern Baghdad.
"Although the claims of al-Sadr's Promised Day Brigade do not necessarily correspond with our operational reporting, they are clearly responsible for attacks and we take them seriously as a threat against Iraqi and U.S. forces," Johnson said.
Violence has dropped since sectarian slaughter peaked in 2006-07 but Sunni insurgents linked to al Qaeda and rival Shi'ite militias still carry out bombings and other attacks.
(Writing by Suadad al-Salhy; editing by Jim Loney)
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