By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 12, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 11 -- A senior aide to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was assassinated in the holy city of Najaf on Friday, raising fears that the incident could worsen clashes between Sadr's followers and government troops.
The killing of Shiite cleric Riyadh al-Nouri prompted Iraqi officials to declare a curfew in Najaf and send thousands of security personnel into the streets to maintain order. Sadr directed his loyalists to refrain from retaliatory violence.
The assassination threatened to increase tensions between Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, which launched a major offensive against the militia and other groups in the southern city of Basra last month. The fighting had appeared to subside in recent days, but U.S.-led coalition airstrikes Thursday night killed six people in both Basra and the Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
Nouri, the head of the Sadr office in Najaf, was shot in front of his house by two gunmen driving a Toyota about 3 p.m. as he returned from Friday prayers in the nearby city of Kufa, according to Col. Ali Nomas Jerao, a spokesman for Iraqi security forces in Najaf.
"The occupier has a hand in this crime in one way or another," Sadr said in statements released by his aides. "I pledge before God and before the people that I won't forget this precious blood. The occupier won't feel happiness in our land as long as I'm alive."
Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman, said the American-led coalition had no involvement in the assassination. "It's a ridiculous, bogus allegation," he said.
In an interview, Nouri's brother-in-law, Mahdi al-Ghurabi, said his family believed that the Islamic Dawa party, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the largest Shiite party in Iraq and a rival of the Sadrist movement, bore responsibility for the killing.
"They prepared this operation because they knew very well that the assassination of al-Nouri is a heart-rending hit in the heart of Moqtada al-Sadr," Ghurabi said.
Maliki's office condemned the assassination and said it would open investigations.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters during a visit to Washington that the killing was a "cause for significant concern" and said that "it is everyone's interest to maintain the peace in the holy city of Najaf."
Hadi al-Amari, the head of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council, speculated that the killing was intended to exacerbate tensions between his party and the Sadrists. He praised Nouri as a "dear friend" who had worked to improve ties between the groups.
Nouri, a 35-year-old father of four, was a key figure in the Sadrist movement whose sister is married to Sadr's brother, according to Salah al-Obaidi, the chief spokesman for Sadr.
Nouri's detention in May 2004 by American forces was part of a series of events that outraged Sadrists and triggered a Shiite uprising that left thousands dead. U.S. officials arrested him on charges of taking part in the April 10, 2003, killing of a moderate Shiite cleric, Abdul-Majid Khoei, but Nouri was later released. Noting that he was killed almost exactly five years after Khoei's death, some in Najaf speculated that Nouri's killing might have been retributive.
About 1,000 mourners alternately blamed the U.S. military, Maliki and Supreme Council leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.
"God willing, the tails of the occupier -- like Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim -- they will be gone, and they will be finished," said Mohammed Ali Jouwad, 27, a university student from Najaf. "As for the Americans, I don't want them to leave my country so we can finish them and smash them to pieces."
But Jouwad said he would follow Sadr's order to refrain from violence, as did Sadr followers interviewed in Basra and Sadr City.
Less than an hour after the killing, a Katyusha rocket slammed into the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad, home to several Western news organizations. The angle of the impact suggested that it had been fired from Sadr City and aimed at the U.S. Embassy in the fortified Green Zone. Witnesses said the attack caused no casualties. Sadr officials denied any role.
"We believe that this crime has come in order to provoke the Sadrists to do something violent in order to give the government an excuse to continue the pressure and the campaign against us," said Obaidi, Sadr's spokesman, referring to Nouri's killing. "But we will not allow this to happen. We will remain calm."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson at the Pentagon and special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Aahad Ali in Basra and Zaid Sabah, Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.