Al-Sadr Blames Al-Qaida for Baghdad Attack

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose directives can send thousands of heavily armed militiamen spilling into the streets, called for calm Monday and blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the carnage in Baghdad's Sadr City slum that killed at least 48 people.

Speaking at a news conference in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, al-Sadr also sought to blunt rage against Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim community in a bid to prevent the country from slipping into full-blown civil war.

"We are not weak, but we don't want to be dragged to a civil war. So, I will keep calling for calm," the firebrand cleric said.

Al-Sadr has evolved from a minor Shiite figure dependent on his dead father's reputation as a dissident during Saddam Hussein's regime to become one the country's most influential Shiite figures. Millions of Shiite faithful hang on his words, and on Monday he used them for a bitter attack on Iraqi leaders.

"The politicians are busy, with one saying I want to be the prime minister and the other saying I want to be the president. They have forgotten the people and are looking out only for their narrow interests," he said.

By blaming Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida fighters for the attack, al-Sadr lifted the onus of blame from the mainstream Sunni community.

While Sunnis have been deeply involved in the insurgency that has raged in Iraq since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam, their fighters have mainly fought separately from al-Qaida forces that are mainly from outside Iraq.

Al-Sadr's reaction to the deadly bombings in Sadr City around nightfall Sunday was viewed as critical to how the country's majority Shiites would respond to the attack. His declaration Monday had the potential to inspire all-out civil strife.

Sectarian feelings in the country were inflamed to the brink of civil war by the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine and the subsequent revenge killings that targeted the Sunni community and damaged and destroyed dozens of its mosques.

There also has been a leadership void as bickering Iraqi politicians have held up a first session of parliament for three months after its election Dec. 15, unable to agree about the make up of a new government that must be approved within 60 days of the legislature's first sitting.

On Sunday, after meeting with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the country's major party leaders agreed to daily meetings beginning Tuesday in a bid to hammer out differences. Parliament is now scheduled to open for the first time on Thursday.

The United States is pressing Iraqi politicians to form a unity government as a condition for Washington's hopes to begin pulling troops out of the country this summer.