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.
Alaa Maki, a prominent Sunni political leader, said late Thursday that the arrest warrant suggested that the government was "ignorant politically" or had an agenda. "It's a politically weak decision coming from a weak government," said Maki, a senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni Arab group. "It comes at a time when we need to calm down the situation, when we need to minimize tensions."
"Sheik Dhari is not calling for sectarianism and violence, and he's not calling for terrorism. The government has made a wrong judgment in this case," Adnan al-Dulaimi, a leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, another Sunni coalition, told al-Jazeera on Thursday night. "We consider Dhari one of the best symbols of the Sunni leaders."
In explaining the arrest warrant, Bolani, the interior minister, said that "the government's policy is that anyone who tries to spread division and strife among the Iraqi people will be chased by our security agencies. . . . We have to prove for everyone that the government is national and it is going forward with major steps to achieve security and to achieve its political program."
In November 2004, U.S. troops raided the homes of Dhari and another senior official of the scholars association, triggering clashes in Baghdad near the association's headquarters and a mosque widely known for its militancy. Less than a year later, in June 2005, U.S. and Iraqi troops again raided Dhari's home.
A prominent Sunni member of Iraq's parliament, Saleh al-Mutlak, said he planned to ask parliament to shut down until the government revokes the warrant.
Several Sunni leaders called the order to arrest Dhari an attempt to deflect attention from the government, which is under enormous pressure to find the kidnappers of scores of Iraqis from a Higher Education Ministry building on Tuesday, one of the biggest mass abductions since the U.S.-led invasion. In the bold daylight raid, about 80 gunmen, dressed in police commando uniforms and driving police vehicles, abducted as many as 150 men.
On Thursday, Abed Thiyab, the minister of higher education, who is Sunni, said that some of the captives had been tortured and killed and that as many as 80 remained in the hands of their captors.
But Iraq's national security adviser issued a statement saying that only 50 Iraqis had been kidnapped and that all had been released. The Interior Ministry also declared all the captives were free, and the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dismissed suggestions that any were tortured.
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Mehdawi and Waleed Saffar and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.