Top al-Sadr aide killed in Najaf raid, sparking protests
A top deputy of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was killed Wednesday during a raid by U.S. and Iraqi troops in the southern holy city of...
BAGHDAD, Iraq — A top deputy of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was killed Wednesday during a raid by U.S. and Iraqi troops in the southern holy city of Najaf, sparking protests from al-Sadr's followers and complicating an already tense relationship with the powerful anti-American leader.
Hurling rocks and shouting expletives, thousands of angry al-Sadr loyalists marched through the streets of Najaf after Sahib al-Amiri was shot and killed by an American soldier during an early-morning raid. "Agents and stooges!" protesters shouted at Iraqi soldiers and local authorities.
U.S. military officials declined to confirm that al-Amiri was an al-Sadr aide, saying only that he had provided explosives for use against Iraqi and U.S. forces. Al-Sadr officials said al-Amiri was an aide, and also a lawyer who ran an educational organization that helped orphans and impoverished children. They said he had no connections to illegal activity.
The U.S. military said Iraqi and American forces were trying to detain al-Amiri, and only shot him when he pointed an assault rifle at an Iraqi soldier.
The incident comes at a delicate time for the Iraqi political process. Al-Sadr, who runs one of the country's most feared militias, is also a potent political force; his allies control 30 seats in parliament and four key ministries.
Last month, influential politicians linked with al-Sadr suspended their participation in the government to protest a meeting between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush in Jordan. Unable to pass legislation without al-Sadr's support, and fearing Iraq's government could collapse, other Shiite leaders have been appealing for an end to the boycott.
Bahaa al-Araji, a senior legislator with al-Sadr's Shiite Muslim party, said discussions about a return to government were scheduled for Wednesday, but were delayed by al-Amiri's death.
Saddam farewell: A farewell letter posted on the Internet Wednesday in the name of Saddam Hussein declared the former president to be victimized by foreign armies but ready to die and "be with the merciful God." The letter urged Iraqis not to hate the foreign peoples whose armies invaded the country, just their leaders. Released a day after Iraq's highest court upheld his death sentence and opened the way for his execution within 30 days, the letter said: "I call you now and invite you not to hate, because hatred does not leave space for a person to be fair and it will blind your vision and close all doors of thinking." Two of Saddam's lawyers based in Jordan said the letter was authentic.
Baghdad killings: A car bomb killed eight civilians and wounded 10 near an Iraqi army checkpoint. Four civilians died in a mortar attack in a Shiite neighborhood, and police found the bodies of 51 apparent victims of sectarian killings.
U.S. casualties: The U.S. command reported three American military deaths Wednesday, bringing the U.S. death toll for December to 93 in one of the bloodiest months for U.S. troops this year. Two Latvian soldiers were also killed and three were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded under their Humvee, the Latvian Defense Ministry said. Latvia has about 130 soldiers serving in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.
Seattle Times news services
The raid also complicates matters for al-Maliki, a Shiite who is politically beholden to al-Sadr and has been criticized by U.S. officials for not doing enough to rein in al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Two al-Maliki advisers said that the prime minister has been trying to persuade al-Sadr to rejoin the political process and disarm his militia, which launched two major uprisings against U.S. forces in Najaf in 2004. The killing of al-Amiri, they worried, could hinder those efforts.
"We need calm. We don't need more troubles," said Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament and al-Maliki adviser.
On Wednesday, al-Maliki asked senior U.S. commanders to explain the motive for Wednesday's raid, advisers to the prime minister said. One adviser said al-Maliki has set up a committee to investigate the incident, underscoring his concern that the raid could trigger violence and dissuade al-Sadr from political engagement.
Inside al-Maliki's circle, some advisers questioned whether al-Amiri was deliberately killed.
Last week the U.S.-led coalition handed over control of Najaf to Iraqi forces.
"The agreement between the two sides when the security profile was transferred to the Iraqi side is that the Iraqi side should know about any operations or actions done by the multinational forces," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to al-Maliki.
Major Gen. William Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad that the raid was led by 35 soldiers from the 8th Iraqi Army Division Forces with eight U.S. troops serving as advisers.
Caldwell said al-Amiri was implicated in a roadside bomb attack of a police chief in Najaf earlier this year.
Al-Amiri's friends and associates called him an honorable man.
"He never participated in any kind of violence in all his life for as long as I've known him," said Nassar al-Rubaie, head of al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc.
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