BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Radical Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr withdrew his support for a security crackdown in Baghdad on Sunday, hours after a female suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives killed 40 in a student college.
Police earlier said the bomber at the Baghdad Economy and Administration College was a man. But they later said it was a women, who blew herself up in the lobby of the college after she was stopped by guards.
The move by Sadr, an anti-American cleric, is a blow for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who on Saturday had expressed optimism about the U.S.-backed offensive.
Until now, Sadr has supported the plan, seen as a last ditch attempt to halt all-out civil war in Iraq. He said it would not work because U.S. forces were involved.
“There is no benefit in this security plan because it is controlled by the occupiers,” said an aide to Sadr, reading a statement from the cleric in front of thousands of chanting supporters in the firebrand’s stronghold of Sadr City.
“(The United States) is watching car bombs explode, taking the souls of thousands of innocent Iraqi people.”
Sadr led his Mehdi Army militia in two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. The militia has avoided any confrontation with U.S. forces this time and there was no indication in Sadr’s statement that this position would change.
Sadr is now an important player in Iraqi politics, and is a key supporter of Maliki.
Police put the death toll from the college bombing at 40, with 55 people wounded. Most of the victims were students.
“May God curse the terrorists,” some students shouted after the attack. Others sat on the ground outside weeping.
A string of car bombings and rocket salvos also hit Baghdad on Sunday as U.S. and Iraqi security forces stepped up efforts to stamp out Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian bloodshed.
Washington has accused Shi’ite Iran of fuelling violence in Iraq and says sophisticated Iranian-made weapons have been increasingly used by Iraqi militias to kill U.S. troops.
But Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told CNN Iranians had stopped training and providing weapons to Iraqi Shi’ite militants to give the security plan a chance to work.
“There is no doubt in my mind that recently in the last few weeks they have changed their position and stopped a lot of their tactics and interference in Iraq’s internal affairs,” Rubaie said in an interview. It was unclear if he was referring to Iran’s government or other Iranians.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani meanwhile has fallen ill and is traveling to neighboring Jordan for tests, officials said.
“He had a drop in blood pressure. Doctors said he needs further tests,” said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.
A professor at the Baghdad college said the suicide attack occurred as students were leaving morning classes and arriving for afternoon lessons. Others doing exams were wounded by flying glass that tore through their classroom, the professor said.
“There were bodies everywhere,” said the professor, who declined to be identified.
The blast left large pools of blood in the college reception area. Textbooks and pens lay scattered on the floor.
The college is part of nearby Mustansiriya University, hit by twin bombs last month that killed 70 people, mainly students.
Sadr’s statement praised Iraq’s security forces.
“You are able to protect Iraq and its people by your courage and sacrifice, not by the airplanes and tanks of the occupier,” Sadr said.
Talabani has said Sadr had told some of his Mehdi militia commanders to leave Iraq to ensure the security plan was a success. Sadr himself has not been seen in weeks, with the U.S. military saying he is in Iran and his aides insisting the young cleric is still in Iraq.
Washington calls the Mehdi Army the biggest threat to peace in Iraq.
Rubaie said there was some evidence Iranians had been supporting some Shi’ite militia groups fighting U.S. troops.
U.S. officials say the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was arming and training such groups.
Washington is especially concerned about explosively formed penetrators, a sophisticated Iranian-made roadside bomb the U.S. military says has killed 170 U.S. soldiers in Iraq since 2004.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Mussab Al- Khairalla, Aseel Kami, Ibon Villelabeitia and Claudia Parsons