BAGHDAD, Iraq - American troops helping the Iraqi police during a raid on a mosque in Karbala yesterday morning arrested 32 supporters of a fundamentalist Shiite cleric who has openly defied the United States.
The men, followers of Sheik Moktada al-Sadr, had sought refuge in the al-Mukayam mosque Oct. 14 after a gunbattle with followers of a rival cleric.
"These are criminal elements," said Lt. Col. George Krivo, a spokesman for the military here. "Illegal weapons were also seized."
No casualties were reported.
Since the war, Iraq's mostly moderate Shiite leadership has maintained good relations with the Americans, backing the occupation and tempering radical elements in their ranks, such as Sadr. But in recent weeks, armed militias associated with Sadr and a more marginal Islamist sheik, Mahmoud al-Hassani, have grown increasingly belligerent.
The tensions culminated Thursday night in Karbala. A shootout between American forces and two dozen armed guards of Hassani left at least 11 people dead, including three American military policemen.
The United States calls the armed men who surround Sadr and Hassani criminal gangs, and American threats against them grow more bellicose by the day. The raid yesterday is evidence of a hardening determination to deal with Sadr and his armed followers.
Sadr and Hassani are just the most visible of numerous local religious figures who have assembled their own small armies in the past few months, and U.S. military officers are making it abundantly clear that they will not tolerate them.
"We will not turn a blind eye to the militias," Krivo said. "Our intent is to deal with them with as little bloodshed as possible. But the alternative, to let these criminal gangs rule the country, is not viable."
The U.S. States military remained in the vicinity of the Thursday incident until Monday morning. By then, the headquarters of Hassani was deserted, the interior in ruins, the doorway blocked with a rusty metal cabinet.
"The house is empty," said Sayed al-Jazari, a car salesman who lives across the alley. "Where the sheik is, no one will know."
Some of the sheik's gunmen are in custody, officials said. They were among 40 people arrested in Karbala over the weekend. Hassani is in hiding and is now a wanted man.
On Sunday, an American official belittled Hassani. "We think he had less than 100 supporters," he said. "He's rather loopy."
In Najaf, Khazali said he knew the Americans seemed to be hoping his boss, Sadr, would be pushed to the same fate as Hassani.
While officials say they believe Sadr's popularity is declining, they hold him accountable for several recent incidents: an ambush this month in which two U.S. soldiers were killed in Sadr City, taking over the district council office there and a gunfight in Karbala in which at least three Iraqis were killed and several followers of a rival cleric were taken hostage.
After the Karbala clash, Sadr's followers fled to the mosque raided yesterday.