Iraq's radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said on Saturday that he would give the government one more chance to take "path of peace," threatening to declare war if the government continues cracking down on his Mahdi Army militia.
"I am giving my last warning ... to the Iraqi government to take the path of peace and stop violence against its own people," Sadr said in a statement issued by his office in the holy city of Najaf.
"If they don't stop the infiltrated militias, then we will declare an open war until liberation," Sadr warned.
Sadrists always accused other Shiite parties of infiltrating their militias into Iraqi security forces, mainly their major rival the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its military wing the Badr Brigade.
Sadr's latest warning came after the Iraqi troops backed by U.S. warplanes captured one of the Mahdi Army's stronghold in Basra and killed a dozen in Baghdad's Sadr City, another main stronghold for the militia, during an overnight operation.
The statement, addressed to all Iraqi people, highlighted the tension between the cleric and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, which launched a crackdown mainly against Mahdi Army militia in Basra on March 25, triggering intense street battles across the Shiite south and Baghdad between the militias and the U. S.-Iraqi forces.
The fighting later died down after Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets in Baghdad's Sadr City and Basra. But sporadic clashes continued to be reported as U.S. and the Iraqi forces resumed their offensive against "outlawed" militias.
Meanwhile, Maliki warned that Sadr must disband his Mahdi Army militia or will be barred from taking part in the upcoming provincial elections.
In response, Sadr threatened to formally lift the ceasefire on his fighters first ordered in last August, which was credited to the security gains and significant violence drop ever since.
In the statement, Sadr also lashed out at the U.S. occupation forces and reiterated his demand for the withdrawal of the U.S.- led foreign troops in Iraq.
"The occupation has made us target of its planes, tanks, air strikes and snipers. Without our support this government would not have been formed. But with its alliance with the occupier it is not independent and sovereign, as we would like it to be," the cleric said.
Sadr also said he belonged to Iraq and vowed to continue fighting for the Iraqi people.
"They accuse me of belonging to Iran ... but I belong to only Iraq. I belong to the will of my people." he said.
(Xinhua News Agency April 20, 2008)