BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister got a show of support from political leaders of both Muslim sects on Thursday as he moved to isolate anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers.
The meeting drew warnings from Sadrist lawmakers that the government's effort against them could backfire even as fighting between Shiite militants and U.S.-Iraqi forces eased after days of fierce clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City district.
The fighting has taken its toll on all sides. The U.S. military announced that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday in central Baghdad, raising to 18 the number of Americans who died in Iraq the first 10 days of April.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, convened the meeting of the main political blocs to discuss the Iraqi-led crackdown on militias that began March 25 in the southern city of Basra, triggering the current crisis.
The notable absence of the Sadrists signaled that Maliki was making good on a threat to try to isolate the movement politically if its Mahdi Army militia is not disbanded.
The Sadrists complained of not being invited to the meeting.
"The Iraqi prime minister is waging a political war," Sadrist lawmaker Falah Shanshal said. "But he is committing a big mistake because the Sadr movement enjoys the support of a large portion of the Iraqi public."
The recent government crackdown on the Mahdi Army has provoked fierce retaliation, underscoring the fragility of the security gains.
Prominent Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi, who leads the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, emerged from Thursday's meeting to say the crackdown was "a courageous step."
"We stand beside this government and support it," Dulaimi said, adding that his Accordance Front would begin talks soon on ending its Cabinet boycott.
Powell gives warning
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that President Bush's successor will have to come to grips with the reality that the United States cannot continue to keep such large numbers of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Without taking sides in the race for the White House, Powell said, "whichever one of them becomes president on Jan. 1, 2009, they will face a military force that cannot continue to sustain 140,000 people deployed in Iraq and the 20 odd (thousand) or 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan and our other deployments." Powell's comments came in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America" Powell, who is a former chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued publicly for the invasion of Iraq early in Bush's presidency.
Fighting goes on
A U.S. airstrike targeted a building in Baghdad's Sadr City on Thursday, hours after American soldiers clashed with Shiite militants in fighting that left 15 people dead, police and the U.S. military said.
Sadr City is a principal stronghold of the Mahdi Army. Government troops supported by the U.S. military have been fighting to gain control of the area for the past 10 days.
The U.S. military will continue to hold Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein until it has reviewed an Iraqi order granting him amnesty from terror-related allegations, a U.S. spokesman said Thursday.
An Iraqi judicial committee on Monday dismissed terrorism-related allegations against Hussein and ordered him released after nearly two years in U.S. custody.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, revealed Thursday that he quietly visited several Middle East countries as part of diplomatic efforts to slow the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.
Petraeus did not name the countries he visited, but the Associated Press learned that the trips — all taken since last September — were to Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.