By Amit R. Paley and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 22, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 21 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested top aides to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in pre-dawn raids Thursday, according to Sadr officials who called the move a provocation designed to trigger a full-blown battle between the groups.
"It is obvious they want to draw the Sadr movement into a military confrontation," said Abdul Razzak al-Nedawi, a leader of the Sadr movement in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. "But we are trying our best to avoid such confrontation and find alternative ways to armed confrontation."
Although the U.S. military and Sadr forces have fought some of the fiercest battles here since the 2003 American-led invasion, the relationship between the two sides has become even more convoluted since Sadr's political party became one of the largest blocs in parliament. Now, U.S. military and Iraqi officials are grappling with how to handle the Shiite Muslim cleric as he evolves from guerrilla fighter to political kingmaker.
The raids, which took place in Baghdad and Najaf, included the arrest in Najaf of a top spokesman for the group, Salah al-Obaidy, Sadr officials said. In response, Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, was deployed throughout the Shiite holy city to protect the movement's offices and the personal residence of its leader.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said he had no information about the raids.
The flare-up came as U.S.-led coalition forces handed control of Dhi Qar, a relatively peaceful southern province, to Iraqi security forces. It is the second province to be turned over to the Iraqi government; control of Muthanna province was transferred in July.
"Dhi Qar's provincial leadership has demonstrated the ability to take the lead in managing its own security and governance duties at the provincial level," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a joint statement. Personnel are "in place to facilitate the transfer process, and Coalition forces stand ready to provide assistance if needed."
Although Italian and Romanian forces now in Dhi Qar will no longer have primary responsibility for security, U.S.-led forces will remain in nearby bases and provide assistance and training to their Iraqi counterparts, Maj. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, Casey's deputy chief of staff for strategy, plans and assessments, told reporters.
In Baghdad, the bloodletting continued. At least 27 people were killed or found dead Thursday, including more than a dozen people apparently killed by death squads, the Associated Press reported.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of two soldiers. A soldier assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, died Thursday of combat wounds in Anbar province, a restive Sunni insurgent stronghold, and a soldier was killed in Baghdad on Wednesday after his vehicle was struck by a bomb. No further details were released.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.