International Herald Tribune
Report: Muqtada al-Sadr says Iraq's government is near its end
The Associated Press
Monday, August 20, 2007
LONDON: A top Iraqi Shiite militia leader predicted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government was nearing its end because it has been tainted by its close work with American forces, a British newspaper reported Monday.
Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told The Independent newspaper that al-Maliki's government was on the brink of collapse, despite efforts to bolster its base of support.
"Al-Maliki's government will not survive because he has proven that he will not work with important elements of the Iraqi people," the cleric was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
"The prime minister is a tool for the Americans, and people see that clearly. It will probably be the Americans who decide to change him when they realize he has failed. We don't have a democracy here, we have a foreign occupation."
Al-Sadr had been among al-Maliki's strongest supporters.
Early this year, al-Sadr agreed to government appeals to tone down his anti-American rhetoric and not directly challenge the waves of U.S. soldiers trying to regain control of Baghdad.
However, he broke with al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite, in April and withdrew his five supporters from the Iraqi Cabinet to protest the prime minister's refusal to demand a timetable for the pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq.
However, the interview became mired in controversy when Ahmed al-Shaibani, a senior official in al-Sadr's office in Najaf denied it had taken place. The Independent stood by its story, and said the confusion may have arisen because the interview was arranged without the assistance of al-Sadr's media representatives.
The newspaper reported that, during the interview, conducted in the southern Iraqi city of Kufa, al-Sadr also declared that British forces had been defeated in Iraq and would be forced to pull out sooner than they planned.
He said resistance and a rising death toll among troops had forced a withdrawal, the newspaper reported.
"The British have given up and they know they will be leaving Iraq soon," al-Sadr was quoted as saying. "They are retreating because of the resistance they have faced. Without that, they would have stayed for much longer, there is no doubt."
Al-Sadr controls a political movement that includes a network of hardcore militants, many of whom are blamed for dozens of deaths among British troops. The militants have frequently clashed with British troops and rival militias for control of the southern city of Basra.
"The British have realized this is not a war they should be fighting or one they can win," al-Sadr was quoted as saying. "The Mahdi army has played an important role in that."
British Maj. Mike Shearer rejected al-Sadr's assessment, arguing that British forces had always expected an increase in violence in the months before they hand over the southern city of Basra to Iraqi forces.
"The malign influences in the city, we have always predicted, would raise their game to create the false impression that they were driving us out, and that is not the case," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today program.
"The reality is it makes sense, the closer we get to achieving Iraqi control in Basra province, that we reduce our operational footprint in the city and allow the Iraqi security forces to take the lead in policing security of their own city," he said.
Al-Sadr warned that Britain's involvement in Iraq made Britain a target of violence, The Independent reported.
"The British put their soldiers in a dangerous position by sending them here, but they also put the people in their own country in danger," he said, according to the newspaper. "They have made enemies among all Muslims, and they now face attacks at home because of their war. That was their mistake."
Al-Sadr said the problems in southern Iraq would persist long after British forces departed, the newspaper reported. The number of British forces in Iraq has dropped from 7,000 at the beginning of the year to about 5,500 now.
"There will still be some problems in southern Iraq, there will be violence because some countries are trying to influence the situation," he was quoted as saying, apparently referring to Iran. "But with the occupation of southern Iraq finished we will be freer to live our lives as brothers."
He rejected recent reports that he had fled to Iran and denied claims his forces had requested help from Tehran, according to the newspaper.
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