The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has called on his followers in Iraq to rise up and fight U.S. troops. The message comes as clashes broke out in at least three cities between his supporters and U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
The message went out at midday in the mosques of the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, named after the firebrand cleric's esteemed father. Moqtada al-Sadr's representatives said the truce between his followers and the U.S. military is over.
By then, it was already obvious. Heavy fighting had broken out in the holy city of Najaf, about 120 kilometers south of Baghdad. Insurgents shot down a U.S. military helicopter. The military says the crew members, who were wounded, were rescued. Outside of Najaf, a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a military convoy killed one U.S. soldier and wounded five.
The fighting in Najaf erupted in the early hours of Thursday morning. Iraqi government officials say Mr. al-Sadr's militia, known as the Mehdi army, repeatedly attacked a police station with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.
Mr. al-Sadr's spokesman say the police and U.S. troops provoked the attack by surrounding the cleric's house Tuesday.
But Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib told reporters the U.S. troops did not get involved until later, after Iraqi police had already repelled two attacks on their main police station, and then only at the request of the local governor.
"He is the governor of Najaf. He is the political leader in his area, and the chief of police. So, it's not an action has been taken by the multi-national force," he said. "It's a decision has been made by the governor of Najaf."
Back in Baghdad, tensions rose in the Sadr City neighborhood, where the radical cleric has many followers. Insurgents attacked U.S. patrols in the area, but it is still not clear how much support Mr. al-Sadr's call for an uprising will receive. His last call for rebellion, in April, sparked an uprising that lasted for two months.
As nightfall approached, the interior minister said Iraqi security forces were still trying to regain control of the area.
"There are certain areas in Sadr City still under high [tension]," he added. "We know this area very well, and we are isolating it, and, hopefully, by evening, it will be under our control."
The fighting appears to have ended a two-month-old truce between Mr. al-Sadr and coalition forces. The 31-year-old cleric is viewed with great suspicion by many Iraqis, but he retains a loyal following among poor Shias.
There has been a warrant for his arrest since last year, on charges related to the killing of a rival cleric. Since a cease fire went into effect, Iraqi security forces have declined to arrest him.
Mr. Al-Naqib indicated that situation may have changed.
"I will arrest anybody disturbing the security of our country. Whoever he is. Once we will find him, we will arrest him," he stated.
Thursday's violence also spread to the southern city of Basra, where followers of Mr. al-Sadr took to the streets to demand the release of several of their comrades. A gun battle erupted with British troops controlling the area. And a British military spokeswoman says two of the cleric's followers were killed.