BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – After eight months in hiding, the firebrand Shiite cleric who launched two uprisings against U.S. forces last year is back in the limelight – railing against America, denouncing terrorism and mediating a sectarian rift that threatens to plunge Iraq into civil war.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s return last Monday, in a news conference at his Najaf home, seemed perfectly timed. Fellow Shiites now rule Iraq’s political scene, the U.S. forces he opposes are struggling against a raging insurgency, and he has taken on a statesmanlike role to resolve a bloody feud between Shiite and Sunni leaders.

On Sunday, al-Sadr dispatched top aides to patch up a troubling dispute threatening to inflame wider Shiite-Sunni violence. Ten Shiite and Sunni clerics are among more than 550 people killed in a wave of attacks following April 28’s announcement of the new Shiite-led government.

Al-Sadr’s team met the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group accusing the Badr Brigades, the armed wing of Iraq’s largest Shiite group, of killing Sunni clerics.

“There is a wound that needs to be treated and Muqtada was the first to offer his medicine,” said the association’s spokesman Sheik Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi.

The Badr Brigades, which denies the association claims, will soon meet with al-Sadr’s officials in an effort to find a way to end the bloodshed and acrimony.

If successful, al-Sadr will win political credence in a troubled country where all sides – U.S.-led forces, Iraqi authorities and ordinary citizens alike – are tired of incessant insecurity and mayhem.

Laith Kuba, spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, urged Sunni Muslim leaders to take a strong stand on the killing of security forces and others at the hand of the insurgents. Sunni extremists are believed to be driving Iraq’s insurgency.

“They should also give their opinion about the killing of civilians,” he said. “The Iraqi people want to hear that.”

Many regard the Sunni fall from grace as a key factor in Iraq’s insurgency, which claimed more victims Sunday with gunmen killing Trade Ministry official Ali Moussa and his driver while they headed to work.

In a sign of official intolerance of the violence, a court on Sunday sentenced to death three Sunnis linked to the feared Ansar al-Sunnah Army terror group for killing three police officers last year.

U.S. forces, backed by at least 2,000 and Iraqi troops, launched a major offensive against insurgents in Baghdad’s western Abu Ghraib district, where attacks along the dangerous airport road and the notorious U.S. detention facility have been commonplace.

A “substantial” number of suspected insurgents were captured, the military said without elaborating. Also Sunday, two U.S. soldiers were killed – one in a car bomb attack just north of Tikrit and another in a vehicle accident near Kirkuk.

Separately, the government said its security forces captured Ismail Budair Ibrahim al-Obeidi, a “terrorist” close to the network of Jordan-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on Tuesday in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad. The terror suspect had planned Baghdad car bomb attacks and rigged booby-trapped cars for foreign fighters, the statement said.

Iraqi authorities also announced that Ghazi Hammud al-Obeidi, 65, one of the most-wanted officials from Saddam Hussein’s former regime, was released last month because he was apparently terminally ill.

Al-Obeidi, suffering from stomach cancer, was the former regional chairman of the ruling Baath Party in the southern Iraqi city of Kut. He was detained May 7, 2003, and released April 28, making him the first of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis to be freed. He was No. 51 on the most-wanted list.

Three Romanian journalists and their Iraqi-American guide who had been held hostage for nearly two months in Iraq were released.

The Romanians – newspaper reporter Ovidiu Ohanesian, TV reporter Marie-Jeanne Ion and cameraman Sorin Miscoci – were kidnapped in Iraq on March 28, along with their Iraqi-American guide, Mohammed Monaf. Their kidnappers had threatened to kill them unless Romania pulled its 800 troops out of Iraq, but the Romanian president had refused.

Iraq’s government joined U.S. calls in demanding Syria do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing the porous border into Iraq to fight coalition forces.

“It is impossible for about 2,000 people coming from the Gulf to pass through Syria and cross from Qaim or other border points without being discovered, despite our repeated calls,” government spokesman Kuba said.

Al-Sadr ordered mass rallies Friday to protest a U.S.-Iraqi raid days earlier on one of his offices south of Baghdad that netted 13 supporters. Thousands responded by stomping on American and Israeli flags painted outside Shiite mosques Friday.

One protest, in Nasiriyah, turned violent, with members of his al-Mahdi Army militia fighting security guards protecting a provincial governor’s office. About 20 people, mostly al-Sadr supporters, were wounded.

The violence sent worrisome signals to many here, particularly the Americans, who remember how the burly, black-bearded cleric, launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in Baghdad and Najaf in April and August last year.

“It would be very good for Mr. al-Sadr to stay in the political process,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. “It is important for Mr. Sadr to urge his followers to stay away from violence. We really don’t need a repeat of the fighting of last year.”

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