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.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad that the raid was led by 35 soldiers from the 8th Iraqi Army Division Forces, with eight U.S. troops serving as advisers.
"It was an Iraqi-led, planned operation consistent with the fact that Najaf now has been passed to provincial Iraqi control and that the U.S. forces don't operate there independently," he said.
Caldwell, who declined to confirm Amiri's link to Sadr, said U.S.-led coalition forces had been gathering intelligence on him for a long time. He said Amiri was implicated in a roadside bomb attack on a police chief in Najaf this year.
"The purpose for going after him is because of the illegal activities that he was conducting, not because he was associated with any particular organization," Caldwell said.
Amiri's friends and associates called him an honorable man. "He never participated in any kind of violence in all his life for as long as I've known him," said Nasar al-Rubaie, head of Sadr's parliamentary bloc.
More than 6,000 mourners followed Amiri's coffin as it was carried to a cemetery in Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad.
Sadr asked his followers to "calm down, observe self-restraint and not do anything that could inflict harm or damage on the country and the people, especially since maintaining calm and security is the responsibility of all sides."
U.S. officials and Sadr loyalists gave conflicting versions of the events that led to Amiri's death.
Amiri's 19-year-old son, Karrar Sahib al-Amiri, said Iraqi and U.S. troops knocked on the family's door at 6 a.m. When he answered it, he asked the soldiers what they wanted, he recalled. They pushed him aside and stormed into the house, he said. His mother shouted at them while his father ran to the roof. Amiri said his father tried jumping to the roof of the next house but could not.
The soldiers followed him upstairs, the son said. He said his mother asked an Iraqi soldier why they were there. "We want to question him," Amiri recalled the soldier saying.
A few minutes later, the son heard four gunshots. He found his father on the roof with a bullet in his head and three bullets in his chest, he said.
The U.S. military said the elder Amiri ran upstairs when the troops arrived to detain him, ignoring repeated warnings to stop. An Iraqi soldier and an American adviser followed him to the roof, where Amiri confronted one of them with a rifle, the military said in a statement.
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.