The Bush administration says the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government will proceed as planned despite what it termed the "thuggery" of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia followers. U.S. officials insist the rebel cleric does not have a wide following among Iraq's majority Shiite community.
U.S. criticism of the rebel cleric was led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army militiamen do not reflect the views of all the Shiites in southern Iraq.
In an interview Tuesday with radio talk-show host Tony Snow, Mr. Powell said Shiite leaders in the south have not come out in support of Mr. al-Sadr, whose followers have clashed with U.S.-led coalition forces in several Iraqi cities since Sunday.
He called the radical cleric and his Mahdi army militia "an immediate problem that has to be dealt with" and said coalition military commanders are working on plans to do just that.
Moqtada al-Sadr called on his militiamen to attack coalition officials and troops late last week after U.S. authorities in Baghdad ordered his weekly newspaper closed for printing inflammatory articles.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the conflict is not a religious issue, but rather a question of whether the rebel cleric will be allowed to impose his views on others through "thuggery" rather than political persuasion.
"Sadr and his small number of followers, we don't see them as representative of a religious cause, but rather as representative of political gangsterism," he said. "They're not acting in the name of religion. They're acting in the name of arrogating for themselves political power and influence through violence, because they can't get it through peaceful persuasion."
Mr. Ereli said the latest clashes are no reason to push back the June 30 deadline for a transfer of sovereignty from the coalition to an Iraqi interim government, and in fact should give impetus to the process. He said talks on the structure of the interim authority are "gaining momentum every day," especially with the arrival of U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi who will explore prospects for compromise among the major Iraqi factions.
In his radio appearance, Secretary Powell did not directly address a suggestion by his interviewer that Iran is underwriting Moqtada al-Sadr, and otherwise fomenting mischief among Iraqi Shiites. But Mr. Powell said the United States is telling Iranian authorities "to avoid this kind of activity," which he said could be destabilizing.