By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD - Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vowed Thursday to go ahead with a planned march to a devastated shrine in central Iraq but insisted the goal was not to confront Sunnis who live along the way.
Instead, al-Sadr said the march was aimed at bringing Shiites and Sunnis closer together and breaking down the barriers imposed by the Americans and Sunni religious extremists.
The march is set for July 5 to the Askariya shrine in Samarra, which was bombed for a second time June 13. Sunni organizations and government officials have urged al-Sadr to cancel the march, fearing it will escalate sectarian violence that already has claimed thousands of lives.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office issued a statement Thursday calling on people not to go to the central city because securing the road between Baghdad and Samarra will take "some time."
"As we appreciate the people's feelings to go to Samarra in a peaceful march, we declare that securing the road to the city has not been completed according to commanders in the area," the statement said.
Some Sunnis also fear that the march will bring thousands of Shiites to Samarra in a bid to change the demographics of the predominantly Sunni city. Al-Sadr insisted that his marchers will return to their homes as soon as the march is over.
"We call upon all Iraqis, whether tribesmen, dignitaries or officials to show the good will and cooperate in order for this march to be successful and to be a turning point in improving the fractured relations," al-Sadr said.
Since his return from Iran last month, al-Sadr has been trying to show himself as a unifying figure for Iraqis rather than a divisive Shiite leader. His posters can be seen in some streets of Baghdad with a caption reading: "I am not a Shiite and not a Sunni. I am Iraqi."
Al-Sadr called Iraqis of all sects and ethnic groups to take part in the march, which is to mark the birthday of Islam's Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Fatima.
"We hope that this year will be good for Iraqis when they get closer to each other by breaking all the barriers that were placed by the occupiers and takfiris," al-Sadr said.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia launched two uprising against U.S. troops in 2004 and is widely blamed for much of the sectarian violence against Sunnis.
An aide to al-Sadr told The Associated Press that the cleric is insisting on the march despite efforts by the government to talk him out of it. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not supposed to comment on al-Sadr's intentions.
The aide said thousands of gunmen will guard the demonstrators, who are expected to come from the predominantly Shiite south and Baghdad's eastern slum of Sadr City.
He said that the government has sent al-Sadr intelligence reports warning that Sunni insurgents are planning attacks against the Shiite demonstrators.
Samarra, located 60 miles north of Baghdad, is an area where al-Qaida's Iraq branch is known to be active. The shrine is revered by Shiites even though the city is mostly Sunni.