The British army in the southern city of Basra said Sunday that it had arrested two prominent members of a militia affiliated with outspoken Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose armed followers quickly took to the streets to demand the release of the militiamen.
Sheik Ahmed Majid Farttusi and Sayyid Sajjad were detained in an early morning raid and are accused of being involved in attacks that killed at least nine soldiers, according to a statement from coalition forces.
The statement described the two men as leaders of Sadr's Mahdi Army, which clashed with U.S. forces in Baghdad and the southern city of Najaf last year. Another man was also arrested in the raid Sunday but was not identified.
"I am well aware that the people that we have arrested are prominent individuals in Basra," said Brig. John Lorrimer, commander of the British army's 12th Mechanized Brigade. "But let me make it absolutely clear: We have acted against them as individuals, not as members of any particular organization."
Also Sunday, Iraqi officials said a Kurdish member of the National Assembly was killed by gunmen late Saturday north of Baghdad, along with his brother and his driver. Faris Nasir Hussein was the third member of Iraq's parliament to be assassinated since members took office in March. Another assembly member, Haider Qasim, was wounded in the incident.
The men were on their way to a meeting at which the assembly gave final approval to the country's draft constitution and submitted it to the United Nations.
After the arrests in Basra, dozens of Mahdi Army members with assault rifles marched to the provincial governor's office in protest. They withdrew by early afternoon following a meeting with the governor.
The Mahdi Army has remained largely out of the spotlight since last year's uprising against U.S. forces, as the cleric publicly eschewed armed confrontation in favor of the political process, while maintaining his anti-American rhetoric.
But after demonstrators burned Sadr's office in Najaf last month, Mahdi Army members occupied large parts of several southern cities, including Basra, and attacked the offices of a rival Shiite militia, the Badr Organization.
The initial version of the military's statement sent to reporters referred to the Mahdi Army as a "terror organization." A revised version sent about an hour later deleted that reference.
Sayyid Mustafa Yaqoubi, a senior member of Sadr's organization, condemned the arrest of the two men. He said they "have not been active, especially after the closure of the Sadr office in Basra six months ago."
U.S. forces reportedly had detained Farttusi for two days in April 2003, touching off demonstrations in Baghdad.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Sunday, U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to wrap up an offensive that began early this month in the northwestern city of Tall Afar. Six insurgents were killed by American soldiers raiding a pair of "safe houses" there, the military said in a statement.
A U.S. soldier was killed Saturday in a roadside bombing near the western town of Al Asad, the military said in a statement, and four Iraqi soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk, according to Col. Ayad Abdullah of the army's 2nd brigade.
Also in Kirkuk, police announced the arrest of a man known as Abu Ghalib, described as the head of a prominent insurgent cell loyal to Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the country's main insurgent group.
Police also said they found the bodies of 24 people in the Tigris River, most of them near Balad, north of Baghdad, according to the Associated Press. The victims had been shot, authorities said.
Aldin reported from Tikrit. Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.