Iraq's Shi'ite sermons reflect deep rifts over gov't militia crackdown

Shi'ite clerics offered sharply different visions Friday in the showdown between government forces and Shiite militias - one predicting that armed groups will be crushed in Baghdad and another calling for the prime minister to be prosecuted for crimes against his people. The contrasting views - given during weekly sermons - showed the complexities and risks in the five-week-old crackdown by the Iraqi government and US forces on Shi'ite militia factions. The clashes have brought deep rifts among Iraq's Shiite majority and have pulled US troops into difficult urban combat in the main militia stronghold in Baghdad. But Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, shows no indication of easing the pressure on militia groups including the powerful Mahdi Army led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iraqi and US forces are pressing deeper into Sadr City, a slum of 2.5 million people that serves as the Mahdi Army's base in Baghdad. Al-Maliki also is seeking to increase leverage on Iran, which is accused of trading and arming some Shiite militia groups. Dozens of civilians have been killed in the clashes in Sadr City, which picked up after al-Sadr threatened last week to wage "open war" on US-led troops and refused to disband the estimated core of 60,000 Mahdi Army fighters.