Sadr Tells Bloc to Quit Cabinet

BAGHDAD -- Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers in the Iraqi Cabinet to abandon their posts Monday, the head of the cleric's parliamentary bloc said, blaming the Iraqi leadership's refusal to respond to demands for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

The order, while unlikely to topple Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, deals a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.

Sadr's ministers will "withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government and give the six Cabinet seats to the government, with the hope that they will be given to independents who represent the will of the people," said Nassar al-Rubaie, head of Sadr's bloc, reading a statement from the cleric.

Sadr, who has tremendous influence among Iraq's majority Shiites, has been upset about recent arrests of his al-Mahdi Army militia fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. He and his followers have also criticized Maliki for failing to back calls for a timetable for U.S. troops to leave the country.

The prime minister issued a statement later Monday, saying "the withdrawal of multinational forces is linked to our armed forces' readiness to take over the security command in all provinces."

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 in the brazen attack, the director of local 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 another security official on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.

Meanwhile, thousands angry about inadequate city services marched peacefully through the streets of Iraq's second largest city on Monday, demanding the provincial governor's resignation.

Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered near the Basra mosque, then marched a few hundred meters to Basra Governor Mohammed al-Waili's office, which was surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and police officers. The protest ended a few hours later.

Residents have complained of inadequate electricity, garbage disposal and water supplies in Basra, 550 kilometers southeast of Baghdad.

In Ramadi, U.S. forces mistakenly killed three Iraqi police officers Monday during a raid targeting al-Qaida in Iraq members, the military said.

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 U.S. troops came under fire and responded, killing three men who were later identified as Iraqi police officers, the statement said. Another policeman was wounded.

Two explosions rocked central Baghdad midmorning -- apparently the sound of mortar shells slamming into a schoolyard at Baghdad University.

No casualties were reported, but the blasts left residents skittish one day after cars, minibuses and roadside bombs exploded in Shiite Muslim enclaves across the city, killing at least 45 people.

One week ago, Sadr mobilized tens of thousands of Iraqis for a peaceful demonstration in two Shiite holy cities, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall.