U.S. Detention of Key Shiite Raises Ire

By BRIAN MURPHY
The Associated Press
Friday, February 23, 2007; 7:55 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. troops detained the eldest son of Iraq's most influential Shiite politician for nearly 12 hours Friday as he crossed back from Iran _ the same route Washington believes is used to keep powerful Shiite militias flush with weapons and aid.

Even though the U.S. ambassador issued a rapid apology, the decision to hold Amar al-Hakim risks touching off a backlash from Shiite leaders at a time when their cooperation is needed most to keep a major security sweep through Baghdad from unraveling.

It also highlights the often knotty relationship between U.S. military authorities and Iraq's elected leaders, whose ties to neighboring patrons _ Syria backing Sunnis, and Iran acting as big brother to majority Shiites _ add fuel to sectarian rivalries and bring recriminations from Washington about alleged arms smuggling and outside interference.

Shiite reaction to the detention was quick and sharp, with some officials suggesting it was a veiled warning about the limits of ties to Iran.

"What happened is unacceptable," Shiite lawmaker Hamid Majid Moussa told Al-Forat television. "The Iraqi government and the American forces must put an end to such transgressions," Shiite lawmaker Hamid Majid Moussa told Al-Forat television.

The station is just one part of the multilayered clout of the al-Hakim family.

Al-Hakim's father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, met with President Bush at the White House in December. He is the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, the country's largest political force.

The bloc carries the strongest voice in the 275-seat parliament and holds critical sway over the fate of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It also maintains very close ties to Iran, which hosted the elder al-Hakim and other SCIRI officials before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In December, American forces seized two Iranian security agents at the elder al-Hakim's compound in Baghdad. Six other Iranians were arrested Jan. 11 at an Iranian liaison office in northern Iraq. The U.S. military said they were members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. Tehran denies the charges.

Washington has repeatedly accused Iran of funneling weapons to militants, including lethal roadside bombs that have targeted U.S. troops.

But the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, tried to defuse any showdowns with Shiites that could upset a 10-day-old offensive seeking to reclaim Baghdad's streets from militants and sectarian deaths squads. Shiite militias appeared to clear the way for the effort by rolling back fighters and checkpoints.

"I am sorry about the arrest," Khalilzad said. "We don't know the circumstances of the arrest and we are investigating and we don't mean any disrespect to Al-Sayed Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim or his family."


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