BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his ministers to quit Iraq’s coalition government on Monday in protest at Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s refusal to set a timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw.
Sadr’s movement, which draws its support mainly from Iraq’s Shi’ite poor, has six ministers and a quarter of the parliamentary seats in Maliki’s fractious Shi’ite Alliance, an umbrella grouping of Shi’ite Islamist parties.
The move exposes cracks in the alliance, which has sought to present a united front despite tensions below the surface, but it is unlikely to significantly weaken the government since Sadrists do not hold key cabinet posts.
In fresh violence, insurgents killed five American soldiers on Monday, including three in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. Around 60 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq this month, putting April on course to be one of the deadliest for U.S. forces in many months.
Gunmen also killed 13 Iraqi soldiers in an attack on an army checkpoint near the northern city of Mosul, police said.
Maliki accepted the Sadrists’ decision to quit and reiterated in a statement that U.S. troops would leave Iraq only when Iraqi forces could take over security.
While Sadr’s support was vital to Maliki taking office, the involvement of his Mehdi Army militia in sectarian violence made his bloc’s presence in the government a political liability.
At the same time there will be concerns about whether Sadr’s Mehdi Army, which Washington calls the biggest threat to Iraq’s security, will maintain the low profile it has kept so far during a U.S.-backed security crackdown in Baghdad.
The Sadrists accused Maliki of “ignoring the will of the people” over the timetable issue and also of failing to improve basic services and security.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis answered a call by Sadr to rally in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf last week to protest against the presence of more than 140,000 U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Sadr himself did not appear. U.S. officials say he is in hiding in Iran, while his aides say he is still in Iraq.
“The prime minister has to express the will of the Iraqi people. They went out in a demonstration in their millions asking for a timetable for withdrawal,” the head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Nassar al-Rubaie, told a news conference.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the departure of Sadr’s ministers would not bring down Maliki’s government.
“If the Sadrists were to leave the government — obviously they’ve said they would before and I understand that they have done that this morning — that does not mean that Maliki loses his majority,” she said.
One analyst said Sadr could be acting to quell internal dissent over what was viewed as tacit support for the Baghdad crackdown, which has failed to stop bombings blamed on Sunni Arab al Qaeda against Shi’ite neighborhoods.
“Sadr is coming under pressure because of his tacit support of the security plan ... So he has to restore internal discipline, which he does by withdrawing from the political process and going back to the street,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think-tank.
Before he entered mainstream politics, Sadr’s Mehdi Army fought two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. Since then, the militia has been involved in tit-for-tat attacks against Iraq’s minority Sunnis amid spiralling sectarian violence.
Hazim al-Nu’aimy, a political science professor at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, said he viewed the Sadrists’ move as part of a “political game” that was unlikely to spark a crisis.
“This is political maneuvering. It’s not the first time they’ve withdrawn from the government,” he said, noting Sadr’s movement was keeping its 30 seats in parliament.
The Sadrists ended a two-month boycott of parliament in January after pulling out in protest over the timetable issue and a meeting between Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Waleed Ibrahim and Dean Yates