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Al-Sadr calls for protests; deaths surge

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Ten U.S. soldiers were killed over the weekend as armed groups avoiding Baghdad's security dragnet attacked with bombs and other weapons in cities and towns just outside the capital.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Ten U.S. soldiers were killed over the weekend as armed groups avoiding Baghdad's security dragnet attacked with bombs and other weapons in cities and towns just outside the capital.

The violence came as radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Iraqi soldiers and police to unite with his al-Mahdi militia to oppose the American presence in Iraq.

Al-Sadr ordered his followers to unite in the holy city of Najaf in a "mammoth demonstration" today on the fourth anniversary of coalition forces' conquest of Baghdad.

On Sunday, in the southern city of Mahmoudiya, a car bomb killed 17 Iraqis and wounded 26 others. The U.S. military has acknowledged that the security crackdown in Baghdad might increase attacks outside the capital.

"You have the enemy trying to show it is still strong and able to move and stir fear in the population," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said Sunday. "We anticipated a movement of enemy forces and violence to the north, south, east and west of Baghdad."

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Three of the U.S. soldiers died Sunday and another was wounded when a bomb detonated near their vehicle south of Baghdad, the military said in a statement. A mortar or rocket strike claimed the life of one soldier and wounded three others in another attack in that region.

At least 3,280 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.

U.S. and Iraqi forces began a crackdown on insurgent and sectarian violence in the capital in mid-February. Since then, death-squad killings have been reduced in Baghdad, but car bombings in the city have continued, and violence has surged in the regions outside of the capital.

Amid Sunday's attacks, al-Sadr, whose social and political movement commands deep-rooted popular support, issued a statement in which he urged the Iraqi forces not to obey the Americans and to unite with his al-Mahdi militia to end the U.S. presence in Iraq. He stopped short of calling for an open revolt against American troops and instead counseled his followers to be patient.

Al-Sadr has ordered his followers to respect the security crackdown in Baghdad, though his forces have been involved in clashes elsewhere. His statement Sunday came after three days of fighting that pitted his al-Mahdi army against Iraqi and U.S.-led foreign troops in the south-central city of Diwaniya.

"We see what is happening in the dear province of Diwaniya of preplanned troubles to drag brothers into fighting and struggle and even killing," al-Sadr wrote. "My brothers at the al-Imam al-Mahdi army, my brothers in the security forces, enough fighting among you. This is giving success to our enemy's plans."

But Iraqi legislators and regional experts see an element of desperation in al-Sadr's attempt to reposition his movement and maintain his power.

In Sunni communities, al-Sadr's name has become synonymous with kidnappings and revenge killings. Among Shiites, his reputation has slightly suffered as cracks appear in his vast Mahdi Army militia and in the top leadership of his movement.

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Not long ago, al-Sadr's fiery anti-American rhetoric and appeal for unity garnered him support across the sectarian divide. In 2004, Mahdi Army fighters and Sunni insurgents banded together to fight U.S. troops in Fallujah. Al-Sadr has called for joint prayers between Sunnis and Shiites in the past, and the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Sunni, pointedly excluded him and his followers from his list of assassination targets in a 2005 statement.

Vehicle traffic is banned toady in Baghdad and Najaf to stave off any attacks on the anniversary.

McClatchy Newspapers and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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