Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric on Tuesday called off a huge demonstration in the capital less than 24 hours before it was to take place.
The march was called for the fifth anniversary of American troops’ capture of the capital, on April 9, 2003, to protest the continuing US military presence.
Iraqi and American armed forces have been tightening a cordon around Sadr City, the vast Shia district of Baghdad that is Sadr’s base of support and that is named after the cleric’s revered ancestors.
At a hastily convened news conference in Paradise Square, where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, Salah al-Obaidi, a spokesman for Sadr, said the movement feared for the safety of its supporters if they confronted armed government forces.
Obaidi said his movement had to take account of “the size of the security deployment made by the government of Maliki.”
“That is why I call on our beloved Iraqi people who wanted to demonstrate against the occupation to postpone it,” he said.
“because I fear for their lives and blood and because, by God, I fear for Iraqi hands being raised against you.”
But he warned that Sadr could at any time terminate the cease-fire he declared in August, which has contributed to a decline in violence and casualties in Iraq.
“If we need to lift the freeze in order to carry out our goals, objectives, doctrines and religious principles and patriotism, we will do that later,” he said.
At least three American soldiers were killed Monday in separate attacks in Baghdad, the US military announced, without specifying where they had been killed or who might have been responsible.
At least 10 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Sunday.
The tension between the Sadrists and government forces escalated in late March, when Maliki ordered the Iraqi military to occupy the southern port city of Basra, where al-Mahdi, Sadr’s movement had taken control.
Maliki has warned Sadr’s organization that it must disarm the Mahdi army, the largest movement in Iraq, or his representatives would not be allowed to participate in future elections.
The badly coordinated push into Basra unleashed a new barrage of attacks on US and Iraqi forces and led to open fighting.
New figures compiled by the US military showed a sharp rise in attacks on civilians and military targets in March, reflecting numerous indications that violence across Iraq has begun to rise again after months of gains in the aftermath of a US troop surge.
The statistics threaten to reignite public concern about the cost of the war, just as the highest-ranking US military commander, General David Petraeus, and the senior US diplomat in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, testified before Congress on Tuesday.
In Iraq, where perceived power is a key to real authority, the Mahdi army is seen to have stopped Maliki’s Basra assault cold then melted away when Sadr ordered them to lay down their arms.