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Al-Sadr Loyalists Quit Iraqi Cabinet

Cabinet ministers loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr quit the government Monday, severing the powerful Shiite religious leader from the U.S.-backed prime minister and raising fears al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia might again confront American troops.

The U.S. military on Monday reported five U.S. soldiers and two Marines have been killed, five of them in combat on Monday. Two others were killed on two days earlier in Anbar province.

Two Marines died in combat in Anbar province, the insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, on Monday. A soldier was killed Monday by a deadly roadside bomb known as an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, in southern Baghdad. Two soldiers and an Iraqi translator were wounded in the attack.

In the northern city of Mosul, a university dean, a professor, a policeman's son and 13 soldiers died in attacks bearing the signs of al Qaeda in Iraq. Nationwide, at least 51 people were killed or found dead, and the U.S. military reported two soldiers slain in Baghdad.

The political drama in Baghdad was not likely to bring down Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, but it highlighted growing demands among Iraqi politicians and voters that a timetable be set for a U.S. troop withdrawal — the reason al-Sadr gave for the resignations.

The departure of the six ministers also was likely to feed the public perception that al-Maliki is dependent on U.S. support, a position he spent months trying to avoid. Late last year he went so far as to openly defy directives from Washington about legislative and political deadlines.

In an appearance with families of military veterans, President Bush said he had spoken with al-Maliki. "He said, 'Please thank the people in the White House for their sacrifices, and we will continue to work hard to be an ally in this war on terror,"' Bush said.

White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said al-Sadr's decision to pull his allies from the 37-member Cabinet did not mean al-Maliki would lose his majority in Iraq's parliament.

"I'd remind you that Iraq's system of government is a parliamentary democracy and it's different from our system. So coalitions and those types of parliamentary democracies can come and go," she said.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to al-Maliki, told The Associated Press that new Cabinet ministers would be named "within the next few days" and that the prime minister planned to recruit independents not affiliated with any political group. The nominees will need parliament's approval.

In Other Developments:
  • Two U.S. soldiers were killed in combat on Monday, both of them in Baghdad, the military reported. One soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in the south of the capital; another soldier was wounded in the attack. In southwestern Baghdad, a soldier died when his patrol was hit with small arms fire. A second soldier was wounded, the military said in separate statements. The victims' identifies were withheld until family was notified.
  • In Ramadi, U.S. forces mistakenly killed three Iraqi police officers Monday during a raid targeting al Qaeda in Iraq members. The U.S. military issued a statement saying its troops "coordinated their operation and no Iraqi police were known to be in the area." The Americans came under fire and responded, killing three men later identified as Iraqi police officers, the statement said. Another policeman was wounded.
  • At least 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed Monday when more than a dozen gunmen hiding in the back of a truck ambushed their military checkpoint near the northern city of Mosul, police said. Another four soldiers were wounded, said police Brig. Saeed Ahmed al-Jibouri, director of Ninevah police.
  • Ret. Marine Corps Gen. John J. Sheehan explained his decision to refuse the post of "war czar," saying the nation's foreign policy toward the Middle East is "confused." Sheehan, in a column published in Monday's Washington Post said: "I concluded that the current Washington decision-making process lacks a linkage to a broader view of the region and how the parts fit together strategically. We got it right during the early days of Afghanistan — and then lost focus. We have never gotten it right in Iraq."
  • The human rights groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Refugee Council appealed to Western governments, in particular Britain, to accept more Iraqi refugees, in order to avert a humanitarian crisis in Middle Easter countries overwhelmed by tens of thousands fleeing sectarian violence. In a letter released on the eve of the first global meeting to address the Iraqi refugee crisis, the organizations indicated the U.S. had taken a step in the right direction by announcing it would accept up to 7,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement, up from 202 in 2006. "The U.K. has done nothing to allow Iraqi refugees displaced by the conflict the chance to resettle in the U.K. — including people who have shown great loyalty and service to the U.K. in Iraq," they said.
  • The trial of Saddam Hussein's cohorts accused in the mass killings of Kurds held a brief session Monday, then adjourned until May 6, to allow lawyers more time to prepare closing statements. Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid — also known as "Chemical Ali" — is among six defendants currently on trial for Operation Anfal, in which more than 100,000 Kurds were killed in the 1980s.
  • A coroner on Monday reopened an inquest into the deaths of eight British servicemen at the start of the Iraq war, and criticized the United States for refusing to cooperate. The servicemen died when a U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed in Kuwait on March 21, 2003, the second day of the war. Four Marines also died. A British inquiry concluded that technical failure was responsible for downing the plane.
  • Thousands upset about inadequate city services marched peacefully through the streets of Iraq's second largest city on Monday, demanding the provincial governor's resignation. Residents have complained of inadequate electricity, garbage disposal and water supplies in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
  • Two explosions rocked central Baghdad mid-morning — apparently the sound of mortar shells slamming into a schoolyard at Baghdad University, along the Tigris river. No casualties were reported.
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that he will be meeting this week with political and military leaders in Jordan, Israel and Egypt to help bolster the fragile Iraqi government. Discussions in each of the countries is likely to also focus on their military needs and what weapons and training they want from the United States, said one defense official. Gates also plans to urge countries such as Egypt and Israel to modernize their defense systems and "transition from the post-Soviet dependency on conventional weaponry to something more ... related toward counterterrorism and the non-state actors that we are all working together against in the region."

    The Mahdi Army, the military wing of al-Sadr's political organization, put down its weapons and went underground before the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown began in Baghdad on Feb. 14 seeking to end sectarian killings and other violence.

    Although dozens of the militia's commanders were rounded in the clampdown, al-Sadr kept his militia from fighting back, apparently out of loyalty to al-Maliki, who was elected prime minister with al-Sadr's help.

    With the political link severed, there are signs al-Sadr's pledge to control the militia might be broken as well. Forty-two victims of sectarian murders were found in Baghdad the past two days, after a dramatic fall in such killings in recent weeks. U.S. and Iraqi officials have blamed much sectarian bloodshed on Shiite deaths squads associated with the Mahdi Army.

    A week ago, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall to U.S. troops, al-Sadr sent tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets in a peaceful demonstration in two Shiite holy cities. Protesters burned and ripped U.S. flags and demanded the Americans fix a date for leaving.

    "I ask God to provide the Iraqi people with an independent government, far from (U.S.) occupation, that does all it can to serve the people," al-Sadr said in a statement on the Cabinet resignations.

    The departure of al-Sadr's allies from the Cabinet did not affect the 30 seats held by his followers in Iraq's 275-member parliament.

    "The withdrawal will affect the performance of the government, and will weaken it," said Abdul-Karim al-Ouneizi, a Shiite legislator allied with a branch of the Dawa Party-Iraq Organization, which is headed by al-Maliki.

    Saad Taha al-Hashimi, an al-Sadr ally who quit as Iraq's minister of state for provincial affairs, sought to reassure the cleric's supporters that their movement would remain influential.

    "This does not mean the Sadrist movement will cease contributing to society," he told reporters. "The movement, as it always has, will remain in society and the government to offer what is best and to push forward the political process."

    In violence Monday, at least 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed and four were wounded when more than a dozen gunmen hiding in the back of a truck attacked a military checkpoint near Mosul, police said.

    "When the driver approached the checkpoint and reduced speed, preparing to stop for a routine search, all of a sudden more than a dozen gunmen ambushed the checkpoint members and showered them with gunfire," said a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.

    Elsewhere in the city, gunmen killed Jaafar Hasan Sadiq, a professor at the University of Mosul's college of arts, as he was driving to work around 8:30 a.m. Five hours later, Talal Younis al-Jalili, dean of the university's college of political science, was slain as he drove home. Shortly after nightfall, gunmen killed the 17-year-old son of a Mosul policeman.

    The brazen nature and the targets of the attacks are similar to previous assaults that blamed on al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, who are trying to break Iraqi military resolve and discourage secular activities such as university education.

    In Basra, in the deep south of Iraq, about 3,000 protesters angry over inadequate city services marched peacefully through the streets of Iraq's second largest city to demand that the provincial governor resign.

    The demonstrators gathered near the Basra mosque, then marched a few hundred yards to Gov. Mohammed al-Waili's office, which was surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and police officers. The protest ended a few hours later.

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