Shiite pilgrims from India and Pakistan were shot to death this week.
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A coalition of 300 Iraqi tribal leaders on Saturday demanded the release of Saddam Hussein so he could reclaim the presidency and also called for armed resistance against U.S.-led coalition forces.
The clan chieftains, who were mostly Sunni Arabs and included the head of the 1.5 million-member al-Obeidi tribe, said they planned to hold rallies in Sunni cities throughout the country to insist that Saddam be freed and that the charges against him and his co-defendants dropped.
Saddam is being tried on charges of genocide and other alleged crimes arising from the Iraqi government's killing and forced relocation of ethnic Kurds in 1988, and he is awaiting a verdict in a trial that concluded in late July stemming from mass killings of Shiites in 1982. During Saddam's dictatorship, positions of power in the military and the ruling Baath Party were held overwhelmingly by Sunni Arabs, a minority that formed the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency after Saddam was toppled in 2003.
"If the demand is not carried out, we will lead a general, sweeping and popular uprising," said Sheik Wassfy al-Assy, brother of the chief of the Obeidi tribe, which hosted the meeting of the clan leaders Monday in Ramal, a village 55 miles southwest of Kirkuk. "As for whether [Saddam] will be reinstated in his post as president after his release, that will be up to him."
The leaders announced their demands Saturday, as Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence and a move asserting Kurdish independence heightened fears that the country is sliding toward full-scale civil war.
Shiite pilgrims from India and Pakistan were shot to death in front of their families as they drove this week through Anbar province, a volatile Sunni insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, on their way to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to Akram al-Zubaidie, a member of the Karbala city council. Zubaidie said 14 pilgrims were killed; The Associated Press later reported that one of the victims was an Iraqi driver.
In separate occurrences across Iraq, at least 18 other people were killed or found dead Saturday, authorities said.
Expanding security plan
In Baghdad, Iraqi military officials announced this weekend that the security plan designed to tamp down sectarian violence in the capital will be extended in the next two weeks into Shiite areas including Sadr City, a stronghold of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The announcement raised the possibility that entry into the Shiite slum could spark violent clashes with Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the southern city of Najaf on Saturday to discuss the deteriorating security situation with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq. Sistani's office said in a statement after the meeting that he supported Maliki's 28-step national reconciliation plan and called on the government to quickly reduce violence in the country before other groups, such as armed militias, fill the void.
"The failure of the government to carry out its duty in maintaining security and order and protecting people's lives would open the chance for other forces to carry out this task, which would be a matter of grave danger," the statement said.