Militant Cleric Avoids Arrest

Iraqi forces raid Sadr's Najaf home but come up empty-handed. Fighting in the holy city between his followers and U.S. troops subsides.

By Henry Chu and Edmund Sanders

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

August 8, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Iraqi security forces mounted an unsuccessful raid Saturday to seize rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr, the Shiite Muslim leader blamed by the United States for a surge in violence in this holy city that has claimed scores, perhaps hundreds, of lives.

In their first such move against Sadr, members of the Iraqi National Guard and police tried to arrest him at his home in Najaf near the Imam Ali shrine, the base from which he had urged followers to rise up and eject U.S. forces. But the militant leader was not at home.

Fighting eased Saturday after two days of battles between his supporters and U.S. troops.

Even as Iraqi forces made their move against Sadr, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said at a news conference in Baghdad that the government had received "positive messages" from the cleric and concluded that, in effect, he was not to blame for the violence.

"These are bandits and gangs trying to hide behind Muqtada Sadr," Allawi said of the insurgents. "We don't think those are his people. There is no statement from him committing himself to them…. That's why I say it's not him."

Allawi also unveiled a long-awaited amnesty program — albeit much more limited in scope than expected — for those linked to Iraq's bloody 15-month-old insurgency.

And in a move that some called an attack on press freedom, Allawi announced a monthlong shutdown of Al Jazeera news channel's operations in Iraq, alleging that it fomented hatred and glorified insurgents.

In Najaf, which has seen the fiercest fighting in Iraq since May, only sporadic conflict was reported Saturday.

U.S. helicopters and warplanes droned overhead, and occasional mortar rounds whistled and exploded in the abandoned streets.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said they had made progress in retaking control of a cemetery close to the Imam Ali shrine that was being used as a base and weapons storehouse for members of Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.

The sprawling graveyard, pocked with caves and mausoleums, was the scene of running battles between militants and U.S. Marines, sometimes leading to hand-to-hand fighting so close that "you can smell a man," said Lt. Col. John Mayer, commander of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

"This is the most intense combat I've seen," said Capt. Coby Moran, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

U.S. officials Friday put the number of militants killed at 300 but acknowledged that such battlefield estimates were "always iffy." Sadr's aides said the figure was closer to three dozen.

Saturday's action culminated in the surprise move by Iraqi police and the Iraqi national guard to swarm Sadr's home in an attempt to arrest him.

"We surrounded the house, but he was not at home," said Gen. Ghalib Hadi Jazaery, Najaf's chief of police.

Jazaery said his officers were serving an arrest warrant issued last year against Sadr in the killing of a rival cleric. U.S. troops tried to serve the warrant in April, igniting an uprising among his followers that lasted two months and left hundreds of Iraqis dead before ending in an uneasy cease-fire.

"We want to clean up this city from this devil," Jazaery said.

There was confusion over who ordered Saturday's arrest attempt. U.S. officials said they were not involved in the raid. One Iraqi national guard commander, Lt. Col. Aqeel Khalil, accused Jazaery of grabbing 130 of his men for the raid without authorization. He said a guardsman was killed and nine were injured in the raid, and 17 were missing.

"They've become shaken and scared," Khalil said. "They're in low spirits."

The move against Sadr came two hours before the expiration of a 6 p.m. deadline set by Najaf Gov. Adnan Zurfi for all militants hailing from outside Najaf to quit the city.

Prime Minister Allawi, at his Baghdad news conference, said that of the 1,000 militants U.S. and Iraqi forces say they have captured, many have dissociated themselves from Sadr during questioning. He reiterated allegations by Iraqi officials that most of the fighters had come to Najaf from other cities or countries, particularly Iran, or were criminals out to wreak havoc.

The seeming contradiction between the attempt to seize Sadr and Allawi's conciliatory statements may be part of a delicate political balancing act.

The transitional government is keen to stamp out the lawlessness and violence that have angered Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion last year, but officials also desperately want to avoid setting off a rebellion among Iraq's long-suppressed majority Shiites. The prime minister is a Shiite.

"I think he tried to play it smart," said Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad political analyst. "Let the Americans do and say what they want" — blaming Sadr and cracking down in Najaf — "while he played it cool."

Pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces could therefore help squeeze Sadr into accepting the government's olive branch. "Put him in the corner and give him just one alternative," Bazaz said. "It could work."

Associated Press reported that other Shiite leaders and a U.N. envoy met with Sadr's deputies Saturday to mediate an end to the conflict.

To persuade others to give up violence, Allawi announced the limited amnesty program, good for the next 30 days, for Iraqis guilty of "minor crimes," such as owning weapons or explosives, failing to pass along knowledge of militant plots or sheltering those involved in insurgent attacks.

Officials ruled out pardons for anyone directly involved in fatal assaults such as the suicide bombings that Sunni Muslim-backed insurgents have used to deadly effect.

The plan fell far short of expectations, casting doubt on whether it could win over active sympathizers of the insurgency, which supporters regard as patriotic resistance to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

"This has been established to allow our citizens to rejoin civil society … instead of wasting their lives on a lost cause," Allawi said.

The tough-talking prime minister reserved some of his harshest words at Saturday's news conference for the satellite channel Al Jazeera, possibly the most popular source of news for the Arab world.

Allawi accused Al Jazeera of inciting hatred and violence by airing grisly footage of hostage executions, siding with the insurgents and putting out a "bad image" of Iraq.

"I am not worried whether Al Jazeera likes it or not," he said of the decision to shut down its Iraq operations for a month.

Journalists called it an ominous sign of the interim government's views on press freedom.

"We're pretty shocked at the decision," said Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout at the channel's headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

The media have "been promised, for months now, freedom of the press and freedom of expression…. This particular move has changed the scene completely in Iraq."

Iraqi police descended on Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau Saturday night, demanding keys from employees, locking rooms and ordering everyone out.

"This is not a shop. You can't just tell us to stop selling goods and close the shop," Haider Mullah, the bureau's legal counsel, insisted to police.

"This is a media network. We have to know what our legal rights are."

Last month, Allawi sanctioned the reopening of Sadr's newspaper, which had been closed by American officials in March because they said it was inciting attacks on U.S.-led forces and their Iraqi allies.

Chu reported from Baghdad and Sanders from Najaf. Special correspondent Said Rifai in Baghdad also contributed to this report.