Close Adviser to Sadr Dies in U.S.-Iraqi Raid

Angry mourners follow the coffin of Sahib al-Amiri, a top aide to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to a cemetery in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq.
Angry mourners follow the coffin of Sahib al-Amiri, a top aide to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to a cemetery in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq. (By Alaa Al-marjani -- Associated Press)

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By Nancy Trejos and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 28, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 27 -- A top deputy of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was killed Wednesday during a raid by U.S. and Iraqi troops in the southern holy city of Najaf, sparking protests from Sadr's followers and complicating an already tense relationship with the powerful anti-American leader.

Hurling rocks and shouting expletives, thousands of angry Sadr loyalists marched through the streets of Najaf after Sahib al-Amiri was shot and killed by a U.S. 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 Amiri was a Sadr aide, saying only that he had provided explosives for use against Iraqi and U.S. forces. Sadr officials said Amiri was an aide and a lawyer who ran an educational organization that helped orphans and impoverished children. They said he had no connections to illegal activity.

In a statement, the U.S. military said Iraqi and U.S. forces were trying to detain Amiri and shot him only when he pointed an assault rifle at an Iraqi soldier.

The incident comes at a delicate time for the Iraqi political process. 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 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 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 Sadr's Shiite Muslim party, said discussions about a return to government had been scheduled for Wednesday but were delayed by Amiri's death. "Because of this problem, we'll leave everything for a few days," he said.

The raid also complicates matters for Maliki, a Shiite who is politically beholden to Sadr and has been criticized by U.S. officials for not doing enough to rein in Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Two Maliki advisers said that in recent weeks the prime minister had been trying to persuade 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 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 a close Maliki adviser.

On Wednesday, Maliki asked senior U.S. commanders to explain the motive for Wednesday's raid, advisers to the prime minister said. One adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Maliki has set up a committee to investigate the incident, underscoring his concern that the raid could trigger further violence and dissuade Sadr from political engagement.

Within Maliki's circle, some advisers questioned whether Amiri was killed deliberately, said a senior Maliki adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A raid involving American forces in Najaf is particularly embarrassing for Maliki. Last week, in an elaborate ceremony, 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 Maliki.

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