Baghdad, Iraq Iraq's prime minister has dropped his protection of an anti-American cleric's Shiite militia after U.S. intelligence convinced him the group was infiltrated by death squads, two officials said Sunday.
In a desperate bid to fend off an all-out American offensive, the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday ordered the 30 lawmakers and six Cabinet ministers under his control to end their nearly two-month boycott of the government. They were back at their jobs Sunday.
Al-Sadr already had ordered his militia fighters not to display their weapons. They have not, however, ceded control of the formerly mixed neighborhoods they have captured, killing Sunnis or forcing them to abandon their homes and businesses.
Saturday's U.S. death toll climbed significantly to 25 after the military reported Sunday that six more troops had died in the deadliest day in two years for American forces.
The latest military reports said four soldiers and a Marine had died during combat Saturday in Anbar province and one soldier was killed in a roadside bombing northeast of Baghdad.
Nineteen of the deaths were reported Saturday, 12 in a Black Hawk helicopter crash, five in an attack on a security meeting in the Shiite holy city of Karbala and two others in roadside bomb attacks elsewhere. It was the third-highest daily toll for U.S. forces since the war began in March 2003.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's turnaround on the Mahdi Army was puzzling because as late as Oct. 31, he had intervened to end a U.S. blockade of Sadr City, the northeast Shiite enclave in Baghdad that is headquarters to the militia. It is held responsible for much of the sectarian bloodshed that has turned the capital into a battle zone over the past year.
Shiite militias began taking revenge after more than two years of incessant bomb and shooting attacks by Sunni insurgents.
Sometime between then and Nov. 30, when the prime minister met President Bush, al-Maliki was convinced of the truth of American intelligence reports which contended, among other things, that his protection of al-Sadr's militia was isolating him in the Arab world and among moderates at home, the two government officials said.
"Al-Maliki realized he couldn't keep defending the Mahdi Army because of the information and evidence that the armed group was taking part in the killings, displacing people and violating the state's sovereignty," said one official. Both he and a second government official who confirmed the account refused to be identified by name because the information was confidential. Both officials are intimately aware of the prime minister's thinking.
"The Americans don't act on rumors but on accurate intelligence. There are many intelligence agencies acting on the ground, and they know what's going on," said the second official, confirming the Americans had given al-Maliki overwhelming evidence about the Mahdi Army's deep involvement in the sectarian slaughter.
Earlier this month, Bush and al-Maliki separately announced a new security drive to clamp off the sectarian violence that has riven the capital and surrounding regions.
Bush announced an additional 21,500 American soldiers would be sent to accomplish the task and al-Maliki has promised a similar number of forces, who will take the lead in the overall operation.
Iraq's Special Forces Command division has already teamed with the Americans since late last year for a series of pinpoint attacks in which at least five top Mahdi Army figures have been killed or captured.
The neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep, expected to begin in earnest by the first of the month, will target Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida in Iraq and its allied militant bands equally with Shiite militias, both the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade.
The latter is the Iranian-trained military wing of Iraq's most power Shiite political group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The first government official said al-Maliki's message was blunt.
"He told the sheik that the activities of both the Sadrist politicians and the militia have inflamed hatred among neighboring Sunni Arab states that have been complaining bitterly to the Americans," the official said.
Sunni Muslims are the majority sect in key Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, all of which have shunned al-Maliki. Shiites, long oppressed by Iraqi's Sunni minority, and vaulted to power with the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Many of the leading Shiite figures in Iraq have deep historical ties to Iran, also a majority Shiite state, whose growing muscle in the Middle East is deeply threatening to the autocratic Sunni regimes in the region.
Shiite holy day
As the Saturday death toll among American troops was mounting, the military reported five soldiers had been killed in an attack on a security meeting in provincial government building in Karbala, south of the capital.
Thousands of pilgrims have arrived in the holy city to mark Ashoura, the festival at the start of the Islamic new year that marks the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most-revered Shiite saints.
Iraqi officials said on Sunday that the gunmen who attacked the meeting wore military uniforms and arrived in black sport utility vehicles commonly used by foreign dignitaries - an apparent attempt to impersonate American forces.
The local governor, Akeel al-Khazaali, was not at the security meeting but said security officials told him the SUVs were able to get through a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, 50 miles south of Baghdad, because local police assumed the vehicles were a diplomatic or official convoy and informed headquarters that it was coming.
"The group used percussion bombs and broke into the building, killed five Americans and kidnapped two others," the governor said. Iraqi troops later found one of the SUVs with the three dead bodies dressed in military uniforms, he said.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, denied any Americans were kidnapped and said all "were accounted for after the action."
A security official in Karbala, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, also said the gunmen who carried out the attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center were using SUVs similar to ones used by the U.S. authorities.
The official said the convoy of gunmen fled into neighboring Babil province. The Babil police commander confirmed that the suspects entered the region before disappearing.
Saturday's deaths of the 25 U.S. troops was eclipsed only by the one-day toll 37 U.S. fatalities on Jan. 26, 2005, and 28 on the third day of the U.S. invasion.
Across Iraq on Sunday, police and morgue officials reported 46 people were killed or found dead, 29 of them bodies, most showing signs of torture, were found in Baghdad.