By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007
BAGHDAD, March 22 -- U.S. forces have detained a former spokesman for Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in connection with a bold attack that killed five American soldiers in Karbala this year.
The military said Thursday that former Sadr spokesman Qais Khazali was arrested along with his brother, Laith Khazali, and several members of what a military statement called the "Khazali network."
Suhail al-Janabi, a Sadr media representative, said the cleric dismissed Khazali in 2004 after he began giving unauthorized orders to Sadr followers during a battle in Najaf between U.S. forces and Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Janabi said Khazali then returned with several fighters to Sadr City, a vast Shiite district in Baghdad, and has not been associated with Sadr since.
Sadr, a longtime critic of the U.S. role in Iraq, lately has appeared to cooperate with a U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify Baghdad and other parts of the country. But U.S. officials have said he may have lost control over some elements of his militia.
The military statement said the Khazali organization was "directly connected" to a Jan. 20 incident in which insurgents, dressed in U.S. military uniforms and driving black American SUVs, passed a checkpoint at a Karbala government compound and then opened fire. One soldier was killed during the attack; four others were abducted and later shot.
Among the victims was Army Capt. Brian S. Freeman, 31, a West Point graduate who helped get a U.S. visa for an ill Iraqi boy and whose death energized war critics in Congress.
The arrests took place over several days in Basra, a southern port city, and Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, the military said. Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the Khazali brothers are suspected of smuggling weapons from Iran, including sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs.
Earlier Thursday, a rocket attack jolted the Green Zone hall where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, on an unannounced visit to Baghdad, were holding a news conference.
After a meeting in Maliki's offices, Ban and Maliki pledged to cooperate on building democracy and infrastructure in Iraq. Ban had just said he would consider expanding the U.N.'s presence in Iraq "as we see the situation improve on the ground" when a thunderous blast rocked the room, shaking walls and chandeliers.
Ban ducked and glanced about nervously. Maliki did not flinch. After a brief pause, the prime minister finished answering a question, then cut short the news conference. No one was injured.
Insurgents frequently fire mortars and rockets into the fortresslike Green Zone. Garver, the military spokesman, said two rockets hit the area during the news conference. The first did not detonate. The second exploded in a parking lot about 100 yards from the prime minister's offices, shattering car windows and spreading debris into the street.
"We could not consider this a major threat to security. It happens," Jawad al-Bolani, Iraq's interior minister, said outside the building after the attack. "You saw how the meeting went on. You just consider it like a tire exploding on a vehicle. Iraqis are not afraid."
In a statement, the U.N. Security Council called the blast an "abhorrent terrorist attack." The United Nations pulled out of Iraq in October 2003 after two suicide bombings at its Baghdad headquarters. The agency has slowly rebuilt a small staff in Iraq since.
Fierce fighting erupted Thursday morning in Basra after gunmen attacked the offices of the Fadhila political party, which this month pulled out of the ruling Shiite bloc in parliament, the Reuters news agency reported.
Kareem al-Zaidi, a Basra police spokesman, said the attackers were members of Sadr's Mahdi Army. Five people were killed and 17 others were wounded, he said, in clashes that underscored the insecure conditions in Iraq's majority-Shiite south two days after British forces withdrew from their central Basra base and handed it over to the Iraqi army. Shiite militias and political parties have battled for power and control of the region's vast oil fields.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military reported the deaths of one soldier and one Marine, both killed Wednesday in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. A soldier died Wednesday after coming under small-arms fire in west Baghdad, where a bombing killed another soldier Thursday, the military said.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.