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Iraq: Al-Sadr Aide Downplays Threat, Assails Iran's Role In South

Al-Ubaydi (right) at a news conference in April 2007 (epa) An official spokesman for Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr has signaled a reluctance on al-Sadr's part to order his Imam Al-Mahdi Army to fight the Iraqi government and distanced his group from elements in neighboring Iran.

Al-Sadr had issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi government earlier this week, saying he would launch an open war if the government did not call off security operations targeting Sadrists.

But in an interview with RFE/RL on April 22, spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi said he thinks al-Sadr "does not accept any kind of clashes with government troops."

"If any kind of open war starts, it will start against the occupation forces," al-Ubaydi told RFE/RL on April 22. "But if the occupation forces try to make use of the Iraqi troops in front of them during [any such] clashes, we have to defend ourselves."

Al-Ubaydi played down ties with Tehran and said Iran has participated in a "campaign against the Sadrists" in the southern city of Al-Basrah to help wrest control from supporters of al-Sadr. Al-Ubaydi added that the Al-Mahdi Army is not supported by Iran.

"It is very well known that there are some political parties playing the Iranian role in Iraq. It is not the Sadrists; it is the al-Hakim party," he said, in a reference to a rival group known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim.

Al-Ubaydi accused Tehran of interference in Iraq, saying that "it is very well known that Iran also has participated in this campaign against the Sadrists in Al-Basrah, because the Sadrists in Al-Basrah have good control, and at the same time they do not take their orders either from the American or the British consuls, or from the Iranian consul there."

He said Iranian elements were waging "a kind of propaganda against the Sadrists to push them out of Al-Basrah...[so that those elements] can work on their investments inside Al-Basrah."

The spokesman suggested that al-Sadr might not have control over all Al-Mahdi fighters but is trying to "take control" over the group.

He accused "bad people" of actions aimed at "tarnishing" Sadrists' reputation, and accused authorities in Baghdad of failing to prosecute "senior figures in the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army who are killers and who have committed many crimes under the authority of the government."