Shiite-Led Iraqi Ministry Seeks Arrest of Top Sunni Cleric

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 17, 2006; 8:02 AM

BAGHDAD, Nov. 17 -- The Iraqi government on Thursday ordered the arrest of the country's most influential Sunni cleric for allegedly inciting violence and supporting terrorism, a move by the Shiite-led administration that could inflame the sectarian tensions already disfiguring the capital and other parts of Iraq.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani declared on state television late Thursday that an arrest warrant had been issued for Harith al-Dhari, leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most outspoken defenders of Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs after the U.S.-led invasion.

"We have proof that he is involved in terrorism," said Brig. Abdul Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, without elaborating. "Wherever he is -- inside the country or outside the country -- the Iraqi courts will bring him to justice."

[The association responded Friday with a call for Sunni politicians to quit Iraq's government, the Associated Press reported. Association spokesman Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi said the arrest warrant was political cover for "the acts of the government's security agencies that kill dozens of Iraqis every day."

Al-Kubaisi called for "political groups to withdraw from parliament and the government, which has proven that it is not a national government."]

In recent weeks, Dhari had angered Shiite leaders by declaring on al-Arabiya television that the trial of ousted president Saddam Hussein was illegitimate, mocking efforts at national reconciliation and expressing support for al-Qaeda. He also said Shiite militias belonging to political parties had infiltrated "the majority of the security apparatuses at the Interior Ministry."

Dhari, a vocal critic of the Shiite-led government and its American backers, travels frequently outside Iraq and could not be reached for comment Thursday. He was believed to be in neighboring Jordan.

"The warrant that was issued is evidence that this government has lost its balance and that it is announcing its bankruptcy," Mohamad Bashar al-Faidy, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents Iraq's Sunni clergy, told al-Jazeera television Thursday night. He added that Dhari was not surprised by the warrant because he has been targeted before by the government.

The move came as cracks emerged within Iraq's six-month-old unity government over the numbers of government employees taken in a mass kidnapping on Tuesday and whether some were tortured and killed. It also occurred on a day when the U.S. military announced that four soldiers were killed, bringing the total number of American deaths in the country to at least 45 this month.

Much of the day's other violence was directed at Shiite Muslims. Gunmen erected fake checkpoints in a Sunni neighborhood and seized Shiite passengers off minibuses, and nine Iraqis were gunned down in a bakery, a business typically run by Shiites.

In southern Iraq, a convoy of civilians traveling near Nasiriyah was hijacked Thursday U.S. officials reported.

While Sunni Arabs revere Dhari, Shiite political leaders describe him as a hard-liner who is deepening sectarian divisions with his caustic rhetoric and vocal support for the Sunni insurgency.

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