BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mocked anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as a coward on Sunday, hours after the radical leader threatened to declare war unless U.S. and Iraqi forces end a military crackdown on his followers.
Rice, in the Iraqi capital unannounced to tout security gains and what she calls an emerging political consensus, said Sadr is content to issue threats and edicts from the safety of Iran, where he is studying.
"I know he's sitting in Iran," Rice said dismissively when asked about Sadr's latest threat to lift a self-imposed cease-fire with government and U.S. forces. "I guess it's all-out war for anybody but him," Rice said. "I guess that's the message; his followers can go to their deaths and he's in Iran."
A full-blown uprising by Sadr could lead to a dramatic increase in violence in Iraq at a time when the Sunni extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq appears poised for new attacks after suffering severe blows last year.
In a warning posted Saturday on his Web site, Sadr said he had tried to defuse tensions by declaring the truce in August, only to see the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki respond by closing his offices and "resorting to assassinations."
He accused the government of selling out to the Americans and branding his followers as criminals.
"So I am giving my final warning … to the Iraqi government … to take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people," Sadr said. "If the government does not refrain … we will declare an open war until liberation."
Rice praised Maliki for confronting Sadr's Mahdi Army, which had a choke hold on Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. The assault was Maliki's most decisive act by far against Sadr, a fellow Shiite and once a political patron. Kurdish and Sunni politicians, including a chief rival, have since rallied to Maliki, and the Bush administration argues he could emerge stronger from what had appeared to be a military blunder.
Iraqi soldiers have taken control of the last stronghold of Sadr's militia in Basra.
"Some of the violence is a byproduct of a good decision," to take on militias and consolidate military power, Rice said.
"That, I think, is what has given the sense to the Iraqis that they have a new opportunity, a window of opportunity."