By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 20, 2007 8:46 AM
BAGHDAD, Jan. 20 -- U.S.-backed Iraqi forces arrested a top aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in eastern Baghdad on Friday, amid growing signs of stepped-up efforts to quell Sadr and his supporters.
U.S. military officials said in November that Sadr's Mahdi Army militia represents the greatest threat to Iraq's security. U.S. and Iraqi forces are preparing a renewed effort to pacify Baghdad, including the deployment of additional U.S. troops.
Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, Sadr's media director in Baghdad, was arrested at his house in the neighborhood of Baladiyat, near the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, shortly after midnight, said Sadr spokesman Abdul Razak al-Nadawi.
The spokesman said a guard was killed during the operation. At least two other aides were taken into custody, according to a statement released by the U.S. military.
The statement did not identify Daraji by name, but said the main suspect was involved in the assassination of numerous members of Iraq's security forces and is "affiliated with illegal armed group cells targeting Iraqi civilians for sectarian attacks." The military said the arrest was the result of an "Iraqi-led" operation.
Nadawi said "the occupation forces are provoking Sadr . . . by these daily operations or every-other-day operations." The spokesman added that the cleric's followers "are the only ones demanding and putting a timetable for the occupation withdrawal."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been pressured by the Bush administration to bring the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias under control, was not forewarned about the arrest, said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for Maliki. Dabbagh said the prime minister was not notified about every impending high-profile arrest.
"No one is untouchable for the security forces," Dabbagh said. "At the same time, no one was interested to go into a fight with the Sadr movement." Sadr, whose supporters hold 30 seats in parliament, is a key supporter of Maliki, who is a Shiite, but the cleric is also widely seen as an instigator of the country's sectarian violence.
Neither Dabbagh nor the U.S. military said whether Daraji had been charged with a crime. "Definitely, if he's not charged, he will be released in a respectful way," Dabbagh said.
Sadr said in an interview with an Italian newspaper published Friday that a crackdown had begun and that 400 of his men had been arrested, according to the Associated Press.
Maliki told reporters this week that 430 Mahdi Army members had been arrested in recent days, but Nadawi said Thursday that the arrests stretched back to August 2004.
In the interview, Sadr said his militiamen would not fight back during the Muslim holy month of Muharram, which started Friday for Sunnis and begins Saturday for Shiites, saying it was against the faith to kill at that time.
"Let them kill us. For a true believer there is no better moment than this to die: Heaven is ensured," he was quoted as saying. "After Muharram, we'll see."
Correspondent Joshua Partlow and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad Sarhan contributed to this report.