BAGHDAD - A pledge last week by Iraq's Shiite prime minister to seek consensus on whether U.S. troops should stay or go came with a challenge to an influential fellow Shiite.
If a solid majority of Iraq's main political blocs decide to back a U.S. presence beyond a year-end deadline, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said, then even anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr should abandon plans for renewed violence.
His remarks carried an implicit threat: If Sadr crosses Maliki's decision on the U.S. troops question, he risks a repeat of the prime minister's 2008 order sending the Iraqi army to crush Sadr's militia.
"Maliki's comments cannot be read as anything other than a direct political challenge to Sadr," said J. Scott Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of state during Sadr's rise and most violent clashes with U.S. forces. "The basic agreement that led to the governing coalition - that allowed Sadr to throw his support behind Maliki - is now breaking down."
That fragile alliance reached in the fall was predicated, Sadrists say, on their fellow Shiite following through on a three-year U.S.-Iraqi accord that calls for American forces to leave by Dec. 31.
On Friday, Sadrresponded to Maliki's challenge. For the first time since returning to Iraq after four years of self-imposed exile in Iran, he gave an unannounced sermon at Friday prayers in Najaf.
"We appeal to all Iraqi people to expel the U.S. troops from Iraq through demonstrations and marches," he said.
But later Sadr hinted that he might not renew armed resistance. If all of Iraq's political blocs decide to support a U.S. troop extension, he said, he may reevaluate whether to lift a 2008 order halting attacks by his militia.