Powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vowed late Wednesday to “shake the ground” under the feet of advancing jihadi militants, days after thousands of his armed partisans paraded through the streets of Baghdad.
Sadr, whose movement battled US forces in Iraq, also voiced opposition to American military advisers meeting with Iraqi commanders combating an offensive that has overrun swathes of five provinces, killed more than 1,100 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and threatens to tear the country apart — ideologically and geographically.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has meanwhile warned rivals against exploiting the crisis to sideline him after Washington urged Iraq’s fractious political leaders to unite in the face of an onslaught led by the jihadi Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“We will shake the ground under the feet of ignorance and extremism,” Sadr said in a televised speech from the Shia holy city of Najaf.
He said foreign powers “and especially forces of the occupier and regional states should take their hands off” the country, referring to the US and Iraq’s neighbors.
In an apparent effort to restrain worsening sectarian tensions, however, Sadr insisted that the militants did not represent Iraqi Sunnis, whom he said had suffered “marginalization and exclusion.”
The cleric’s remarks came days after fighters loyal to him paraded with weapons in the Sadr City area of north Baghdad, vowing to fight the militant offensive.
The cleric demanded “new faces” in a national unity government following April 30 elections that saw incumbent prime minister Maliki emerge with by far the most seats, albeit short of a majority.
Opponents of Maliki have called for a “salvation” government to be formed that would largely ignore the election results, which they describe as a sham, but the premier has said such a move would be a “coup against the constitution and the political process.”
Washington has pressed for Iraq’s fractious political leaders to unite in the face of the unrest, but they have shown little sign of coming together.
US officials said they believed, however, that Maliki was still committed to opening a process on piecing together a government when parliament convenes next week.
Washington has stopped short of calling for Maliki to go, but has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in 2011.
President Barack Obama has so far refrained from carrying out air strikes on the insurgents, but has offered up to 300 American military advisers, who began meeting Iraqi commanders on Wednesday.
Iraq’s flagging security forces were swept aside by the initial jihadi push, but have since begun regrouping.
On Wednesday, loyalists fought off insurgent attacks on a major air base and a key western town, after earlier repelling assaults on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery.