BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Small groups of men and children danced in circles, chanting slogans of victory for anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Others gave out chocolates and sodas.

Jubilant al-Sadr supporters carried large posters of their leaders as they marched in celebration. Motorists flashed “V” for victory signs and some people carried pistols or assault rifles and wore black shirts and camouflage pants, hallmarks of Mahdi Army militiamen.

Tuesday’s festive mood in Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City slum, which the cleric’s militia controls, came after U.S. and Iraqi troops ended a weeklong security cordon, packed up and drove away.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, exploiting GOP vulnerability in the Nov. 7 elections, flexed his political muscle and won U.S. agreement to lift the military blockades on Sadr City and another Shiite enclave. U.S. forces had set up the checkpoints last week as part of an unsuccessful search for an abducted American soldier.

The prime minister’s challenge to U.S. conduct of the war was the latest in a series of acts designed to force the American hand and test Washington’s readiness to give him a greater say in securing the world’s most violent capital.

After the Bush administration unveiled a plan last week for Iraq’s government to adopt timelines for progress, especially in curbing violence, al-Maliki accused Washington of infringing on national sovereignty. There was no doubt he was talking tough to show both the Americans and his political base that he would not be pushed around.

The prime minister, who is dependent on the support of al-Sadr’s political faction, has further said that he feels stanching bloodshed might be better handled by Iraqi forces. Given the present state of his military, however, that argument does not wash.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld endorsed a proposal Tuesday to spend at least $1 billion to expand the size and accelerate the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces, underscoring the Bush administration’s effort to shift more of the burden away from U.S. troops.

Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said al-Maliki was yielding to sectarian pressure and undermining U.S. efforts to curb attacks. “Today, the critical issue in Iraq is whether the Maliki government can muster the political will to confront those who use violence to destabilize Iraq,” Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in a statement.

On Saturday, al-Maliki’s closest aide, Hassan al-Suneid, said unabashedly that the prime minister was trying to capitalize on American voter discontent with the war and White House reluctance to open a public fight with the Iraqi leader before the midterm election. Much of the public discontent is fueled by soaring death tolls among U.S. troops and their inability to contain raging sectarian violence 31/2 years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers in fighting in the Baghdad area Monday, one from small arms fire, the other from a roadside bomb. The October death toll stood at 103, the fourth highest monthly figure of the war.

More than 40 Iraqis were killed or found dead across the country Tuesday, including 11 Shiites who perished in a suicide car bombing at a wedding on the north side of the capital. Four of those killed at the bride’s home were children, and among the 21 wounded were several youngsters with burns over much of their bodies.

There were conflicting reports on whether al-Maliki ordered the blockades lifted with or without prior consultation with American military officials in Baghdad.

State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the decision was reached jointly at a meeting Tuesday among al-Maliki, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

They agreed to make adjustments in the checkpoints because of problems with traffic and pedestrian flows in the area, the spokesman said. He said Casey ordered the actions after the meeting.

A senior American diplomat said al-Maliki issued the order after the meeting “to address the problems that resulted with the flow of traffic and the disruption of essential daily activity for the average citizens of Baghdad. This was a joint decision.” The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity.

Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi said the U.S. military was consulted, but only after al-Maliki made the decision at a meeting Tuesday with his ministers of defense and interior and the national security adviser.

Al-Suneid said the prime minister acted without checking first with the Americans because the blockades had “backfired and made the security situation in Baghdad worse. It is not important that such decisions always be made jointly.”

U.S. troops have increased their presence on Baghdad streets as part of a 3-month-old security crackdown, but they had rarely set up checkpoints in the city until the U.S. soldier was abducted a week ago in the Karradah district in central Baghdad. American forces sealed the neighborhood Oct. 23 and closed Sadr City two days later, apparently believing the missing man was being held there. U.S. forces lifted the blockades in both areas Tuesday.

Al-Maliki’s order came just hours after al-Sadr announced a campaign of civil disobedience in Sadr City, a district of 2.5 million people in the northeast corner of Baghdad. Armed men forced shops to close, hustled children out of schools and blocked residents from going to jobs in other parts of the capital.

As soon as news broke that the security cordon was lifted, al-Sadr supporters declared it a victory for their leader.

“If they had not lifted the siege, our strike would have spread to the rest of Baghdad tomorrow and the whole of Iraq the next day,” said Jalil Nouri, a senior al-Sadr aide.

In issuing the order to lift the blockade, the prime minister said U.S.-manned checkpoints should not be established in Baghdad except during curfew hours from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. He also said U.S. and Iraq forces would not give up on trying to calm the capital.

“Joint efforts continue to pursue terrorists and outlaws who expose the lives of citizens to killings, abductions and explosions,” said the statement, issued in al-Maliki’s name in his capacity both as prime minister and commander of the Iraqi armed forces.


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