(AP) - Iraq's prime minister got a show of support from political leaders of both Muslim sects on Thursday as he moved to isolate anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers.
The meeting drew warnings from Sadrist lawmakers that the government's effort against them could backfire even as fighting between Shiite militants and U.S.-Iraqi forces eased somewhat after days of fierce clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City district.
The fighting has taken its toll on all sides. The U.S. military announced that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday in central Baghdad, raising to 18 the number of Americans who died in Iraq the first 10 days of April.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, convened the meeting of the main political blocs to discuss the Iraqi-led crackdown on militias that began March 25 in the southern city of Basra, triggering the current crisis.
But the notable absence of the Sadrists signaled that al-Maliki was making good on a threat to try to isolate the movement politically if its Mahdi Army militia is not disbanded.
The Sadrists complained they were not invited to the meeting.
"The Iraqi prime minister is waging a political war," Sadrist lawmaker Falah Shanshal said. "But he is committing a big mistake because the Sadr movement enjoys the support of a large portion of the Iraqi public."
The developments came a day after Iraqi authorities announced they would lift a 2-week-old vehicle ban on Sadr City and another Shiite militia stronghold, Shula, this weekend. The intent is to provide relief to the residents who have suffered from food shortages as well as the violence.
Sheik Salman al-Feraiji, al-Sadr's chief representative in Sadr City, welcomed the decision but warned "the battle is not over yet because the U.S. helicopters are still hovering over the city and U.S. forces are still surrounding it."
He also accused al-Maliki of waging a personal vendetta against the Sadrist movement, despite the government's assertion it is only targeting criminal gangs.
"Al-Maliki is refusing to listen to us or meet our leaders," al-Feraiji said. "We think that al-Maliki is determined to continue his mission, and the recent lull happened because of the U.S. criticism of the fruitless performance of his security forces."
Violence in Iraq had declined last year and early this year following a 7-month-old cease-fire by al-Sadr, an influx of American troops and a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq.
But the recent government crackdown on the Mahdi Army has provoked fierce retaliation, underscoring the fragility of the security gains.
A marked reduction in casualty rates began around September 2007, and daily averages continued to decline throughout the rest of that year. However, since reaching a low this past January of 20 Iraqis killed per day, casualty levels have once again started to rise, with 26 killed per day in February and 41 per day in March, an Associated Press tally showed.
At least 261 Iraqi civilians and security personnel were killed or found dead across Iraq in the first nine days of April, an average of 29 per day, according to the tally. That's still about half of what they were a year ago; the daily average for April 2007 was 62 Iraqis killed.
The clearing of former insurgent strongholds also has led to the increasing discovery of mass graves. More than 30 bodies believed to have been buried for more than a year were unearthed Thursday by Iraqi troops at a house south of Baghdad, the military announced.
The killing of the American soldier pushed the average U.S. death rate to 1.8 per day so far in April, compared with 1.2 per day last month, according to the AP tally.
That was still lower than the 3.47 deaths per day in April 2007, but the percentage of deaths caused by roadside bombs was sharply higher.
During April 2007, at least 40 percent of the deaths were from roadside bombs. So far this month, at least 56 percent have been caused by the planted explosives.
Many of those were in northeastern Baghdad, which largely comprises Sadr City, a sprawling impoverished area that is home to some 2.5 million people, nearly half the capital's population. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers have restricted access to the area since the fighting broke out in late March between Shiite militants loyal to al-Sadr and government security forces.
Al-Maliki has found himself on the defensive after Iraqi forces were surprised by the fierce resistance by Shiite militias to an offensive that began March 25 in Basra.
But prominent Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi, who leads the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, emerged from Thursday's meeting to say the operation was "a courageous step."
"We stand beside this government and support it. It was a good and blessed step to prevent militias in all provinces," al-Dulaimi said, adding his Accordance Front would begin discussions soon on ending its Cabinet boycott.
The meeting also was attended by Shiite lawmakers Hadi al-Amiri and Khalid al-Attiyah, the deputy parliamentary speaker.
Fighting continued in Sadr City but at a slower pace. The U.S. carried out two airstrikes targeting suspected rocket-launching sites, the military said.
It did not cite any deaths from the strikes, although Iraqi police said at least three people were killed in one of them.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers also engaged in several gunbattles on Thursday, but "it has been relatively quiet," compared with recent days, said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
Police also said few mortar attacks were reported and more people were moving about the streets.
"We are happy with the decrease in violence. I was able to go to the market today and buy some food for my family," said 32-year-old resident Haider Jassim. "The prices have dropped slightly and more shops were open. We hope that this crisis will end soon."