Shiite Cleric Calls Maliki Visit to U.S. a Betrayal

The premier's failure to condemn American policy helped neither Iraq nor Lebanon, the sheik says.

By Jeffrey Fleishman, Times Staff Writer
July 29, 2006

BAGHDAD — In a sermon rich with bloody imagery and religious struggle, an influential Shiite Muslim cleric Friday condemned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's trip to Washington this week as a betrayal of Islam and a humiliation to his people at the hands of U.S. and Israeli aggressors.

Sheik Aws Khafaji intertwined the bloodshed in Iraq and Lebanon, calling it a design by Christians and Jews to defeat the Muslim world. He criticized Maliki's speech before the U.S. Congress and asked: "What forced you to eat with the occupiers? Is that your reward? You know more than anybody else that the car bombings, terrorism, explosions and bloodletting in Iraq are under the protection of Zionist-American plans."

The sermon during Friday prayers in Baghdad came as U.S. and Iraqi forces planned a wider crackdown to stop the unrelenting sectarian violence that has pushed this nation into an undeclared civil war. Khafaji's comments also added another sensitive dynamic to Iraqi politics — the sheik is a confidant of Muqtada Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose movement controls a well-armed militia and 30 seats in parliament.

Sadr and his followers often use overheated rhetoric to attack Iraq's leaders, but Khafaji's sermon was a pointed attempt to link the recent bloodshed in Lebanon with the violence that has beset this country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The sheik said that Maliki had sold his soul by traveling to Washington to meet with President Bush and gain applause from Congress.

"Islam is aloof from you," Khafaji said, referring to Maliki.

Shortly after Khafaji and other clerics finished their sermons, the sounds of violence reverberated across Iraq. A bomb exploded outside the Sunni Ali Adheem mosque and youth center located in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing four civilians and wounding nine others.

In the Tikrit region, five gunmen in two cars opened fire on a house, killing two men believed to have been employed at a nearby U.S. base.

In a separate incident, the U.S. military said a Marine was killed Thursday during fighting in Al Anbar province in western Iraq. U.S. officials also reported that American and Iraqi forces killed 33 militants this week in a daylong firefight in Musayyib. A news release said the battle began after militants attacked a police station. The U.S. called in an Abrams tank and an Apache helicopter, which fired on a fuel truck suspected of carrying explosives.

Maliki's government has been unable to stop the killing that has paralyzed businesses and turned neighborhoods into blocks of fear. During his Washington trip, the prime minister announced that U.S. and Iraqi forces would soon crack down on death squads and insurgents in Baghdad. The number of American troops in the city is expected to increase from 9,000 to more than 13,000. U.S. officials announced this week that 3,500 troops scheduled to be rotated home would stay another four months in Iraq.

On Friday, one of the country's leading Shiite figures, Abdelaziz Hakim, told followers in the holy city of Najaf that he opposed an increase in U.S. forces.

"We must activate the project of popular committees to secure the neighborhoods," said Hakim, whose Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is one of the biggest factions in the country's coalition government. "The security file should be handed over to the Iraqi forces and no one should interfere with it. The interference in the work of Iraqi security forces prevents them from catching terrorists."

A Sunni Arab cleric in Fallouja, Tariq Hamd, said that "sectarian intolerance will no doubt lead to the breakup of society and make it unable to face the enemy of God…. All the sectarian actions have been the creation of the Zionists" and the Iranians.

Maliki is under increasing domestic and international pressure. He rankled the Bush administration by criticizing "Israeli aggression" in Lebanon. But to his hard-line critics at home, the prime minister has drifted under the spell of U.S. interests and has not been vocal enough about U.S. and Israeli actions in the region.

Khafaji said Maliki's Washington visit helped neither the Iraqis nor the Lebanese. He said the prime minister "rewarded" the Americans and the Israelis by not condemning U.S. policy in the region. And, he said, Maliki betrayed the Iraqi people by agreeing to allow more U.S. troops into Baghdad.

"Allah, history and the Muslims will never forget this," Khafaji said. "You are responsible in front of God."

He added that "each drop of blood" spilled in Iraq was "done according to American plans."