BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Two Shiite imams delivered very different sermons Friday, one sharply criticizing the Iraqi prime minister for his recent military push into Basra and the other praising the Iraqi leader for his "bravery" and "sacrifice."
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr pray Friday near a banner protesting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The contrast illustrated an ever-sharpening divide among Iraq's majority Shiites -- those who back cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and those who support Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, the main Shiite group in al-Maliki's U.S.-supported government.
Al-Maliki Friday ordered his troops to stand down and stop raids targeting militiamen, putting an end to the offensive that began March 25 in Basra but spread to other southern towns and even Baghdad, leaving hundreds of Iraqis dead.
The prime minister said the operation targeted criminals. But al-Sadr loyalists said the Iraqi troops, largely made up of members of Islamic council's Badr Brigades militia, were targeting al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia.
The unknown imam who preached to worshippers at northern Baghdad's Baratha mosque, affiliated with the Islamic council, did not mention al-Sadr or his militia by name, but cautioned it was wrong and dangerous to oppose the government.
"He who miscalculated and put his followers and therefore Iraq and its people in this crisis should reconsider and ask himself what has he gained," he said.
Across the capital in Sadr City, the eastern neighborhood that is al-Sadr's base of support in Baghdad, thousands of Shiites heard the other sermon, one that chastised the government and al-Maliki and warned against provocations.
"Those who think they can eliminate the Sadrists are insane," imam Sattar al-Battar said. "They are crazy if they are thinking of more confrontations."
At a Baghdad news conference Thursday, al-Maliki, who had gone to Basra to guide the operation, said he planned further actions in other cities, including Sadr City -- an idea al-Battar rejected.
"Sadr City, God is our witness, will be a nuclear weapon, and the country will not be stable until the Imam appears," he said, referring to a Muslim belief in a prophesied redeemer of humankind.
Al-Battar questioned al-Maliki's authority over Iraqi forces, alleging troops are still targeting Sadr militiamen in parts of southern Iraq.
"Why don't you implement what you said?" the imam said. "Why don't they obey your orders? If you are the prime minister and if you are the commander in chief, why don't they obey your orders in Diwaniya and Samawa?"
The cleric berated al-Maliki for accusing the Mehdi Army of being worse than al-Qaeda.
"Bush did not even say that," he said. "This is the Shiite government that claims affiliation with Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr [the Iraqi grand ayatollah who was executed by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1980] and Khomeini [supreme leader of Iran from 1979 to 1989]. A government brought to power by the people and the Marjeiyya [the highest Shiite religious authority]."
Sadr City's Shiites frequently interrupted al-Battar's sermon with chants and cheers. Many in the crowd carried anti-al-Maliki posters. But at Baratha mosque, a quieter group listened to a no less fiery sermon.
"First of all, we should thank the prime minister for the patience of the prime minister and what he endured, his bravery and the sacrifice he made by refusing to leave Iraqi soldiers and troops alone and personally going, and he an ill man," Baratha's unknown imam intoned. "He personally went and endured what they did and, thank God, he created hope for the future for eliminating gangs that do not want to abide by the law."
It wasn't clear what he meant by calling al-Maliki "an ill man," but the prime minister traveled to London, England, in December for unspecified medical tests that a spokesman said at the time were related to exhaustion.
The Baratha imam blamed the escalation of violence in the south on those who opposed the Iraqi forces, which, he said, had gone in only to "to detain 200 big criminals, drug dealers and oil smugglers"
"The prime minister had no political agenda going to Basra," he said. "The proof is he did not take a force big enough to deal with these political forces that claim he went there to eliminate them.
"The prime minister went with a limited force and was surprised upon their arrival with rockets, mortars, bombs and gunmen attacking them. Naturally at the early stages of this crisis, the security forces were not ready to deal with something like this because it was not on their agenda."
But soon, he said, the Iraqi forces won the day, wearing down their targets, who ran out of ammunition.
"Those who think that political solutions resolved the situation are completely wrong, because it was resolved on the battlefield," he said, repeating al-Maliki's declaration of victory.
But in Sadr City, the Sadrist al-Battar noted the fighting did not end until al-Sadr on Sunday ordered his forces to stop, after meetings with Iranian officials and Iraqi Shiite lawmakers in Iran.
"Religious figures, Marjeiyya and prominent figures from neighboring countries begged Sayyed Muqtada and offered to do whatever he wants," he said. "They begged and begged him to stop the clashes."
In a statement issued Thursday, al-Sadr offered to help the Iraqi government purge its security forces of infiltrating militiamen, which was a factor in the fighting in the south. More than 1,000 Iraqi security forces deserted in Basra and other hot spots during the fighting, a senior Iraqi official said, while others took off their uniforms and joined the militias.
Al-Sadr has also called for a mass demonstration in Baghdad Wednesday against the U.S. presence in Iraq -- a protest that would coincide with the anniversary of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime and scheduled testimony in Washington from top U.S. officials in Iraq. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.
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