BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s government will confront armed militias and not allow all-out war as threatened by populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Monday.
Zebari’s rebuke of Sadr followed a weekend of fierce fighting in the cleric’s east Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, described by the U.S. military as the “hottest” in weeks.
In a statement on Saturday, Sadr vowed “open war until liberation” if the government refused to end a crackdown on his Mehdi Army fighters in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.
“Of course nobody will accept open warfare in Iraq or allow the rule of militias to be established,” Zebari told Reuters in Bahrain, where he will attend a regional meeting.
“The Iraq government will be very firm to confront all outlaw militias as was proven in Basra and other places.”
Asked if the Iraqi government was capable of confronting Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, Zebari said: “Of course, anybody who challenges the authority of the state, the government has to move.”
Rockets blasted the fortified Green Zone compound in Baghdad on Sunday as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and voiced support for his militia crackdown and efforts to isolate Sadr.
The Mehdi Army appears to have stepped up its attacks since Sadr issued his threat on Saturday night, and U.S. forces have responded with multiple air strikes from armed drones and Apache helicopters. Since Saturday, the Americans say they killed at least 34 militiamen in Baghdad, nearly all of them in Sadr City.
Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover, a U.S. military spokesman, said a drone aircraft fired a missile at three armed men in Sadr City on Sunday night, killing all of them.
Two other U.S. missiles killed four rocket-wielding men in the slum earlier on Sunday and U.S. troops killed one gunman who attacked their observation post in the tightly packed district of two million people, the U.S. military said.
On Monday morning, U.S. forces killed three people who fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. patrol in the New Baghdad district, south of Sadr City.
“We’re still seeing harassment fire,” said Stover. “Our guys are trying to put up barriers and are getting fired on.”
Hospitals in Sadr City said they received 14 bodies and more than 50 wounded victims since Sunday morning. Hundreds have died and many hundreds have been wounded since the fighting began a month ago, including civilians caught in the crossfire.
In Sadr City’s main Sadr hospital, a woman wailed next to the unconscious body of a wounded child, wrapped in bandages.
Resident Abbas Ashour Mousa said a missile struck his Sadr City house on Sunday evening killing four people, including his brother, and wounding seven, including his brother’s wife.
“The missiles are striking from everywhere. This bombardment is continuous against our houses. We don’t know where these missiles are coming from. They are coming from everywhere.”
The heavier fighting in Shi’ite areas comes after a week of bombings in mainly Sunni Arab northern areas that killed more than 100 people, suggesting al Qaeda militants in the north are also stepping up violence.
A female suicide bomber killed four people on Monday in Baquba, capital of Diyala province north of the capital.
Sadr’s threat of war raises the stakes in his confrontation with Maliki, who has threatened to ban Sadr’s movement from political life unless he disbands his militia.
Maliki’s crackdown has led to Iraq’s worst fighting in nearly a year, spreading through the south and Shi’ite parts of Baghdad. Although fighting in the south has mainly died down, the Baghdad clashes have continued unabated.
The crackdown has received support of most Iraqi political groups. Rice said this signaled a “coalescing of a centre in Iraqi politics” that was working together better than ever.
Rice is also in Bahrain on Monday for a meeting that will involve Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan. On Tuesday, both Rice and Zebari will attend a conference in Kuwait on stabilizing Iraq.
The meeting in Kuwait will back Iraq’s drive to disarm militias and call for more diplomatic missions to be opened in Baghdad, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Manama, Ulf Laessing in Kuwait and Peter Graff and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad; writing by Noah Barkin and Peter Graff; editing by Sami Aboudi