Interior minister meets with al-Sadr

Iraq government seen seeking his help to quell Shiite violence against Sunnis

October 22, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's top law enforcement official met yesterday with a radical Shiite cleric in an attempt to rein in marauding militias that have been executing Sunni Arab men.

Authorities found the bound and tortured bodies of at least 23 such men scattered around the capital yesterday. Sunni insurgents also continued to stoke sectarian discord, killing 17 people and injuring 30 others in an apparently coordinated attack on a Shiite market town.

Alarmed by the violence, a group of Shiite and Sunni clerics in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, issued a communique urging Iraqis to stop killing each other, citing passages from the Quran.

"The blood, honor and wealth of Muslims cannot be touched by other Muslims," said the statement. "He who kills a believer on purpose will go to hell and stay there forever. And God has prepared terrible torture for him in hell."

Interior Minister Jawad Bolani's two-hour meeting with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came as Shiite militiamen nominally loyal to his cause fought battles with rival militiamen in at least two regions south of Baghdad yesterday. In fighting Thursday and Friday, they took and held the provincial capital, Amarah, in a political and tribal dispute that left at least 25 dead.

Bolani declined to disclose details of his meeting with al-Sadr in Najaf, describing it afterward as routine. It came amid demands for a crackdown on armed gangs of young Shiite men whom some U.S. officials consider an even greater threat to Iraq's long-term stability than Sunni Arab insurgents.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under intense domestic and international pressure to crack down on the militias, some of whom supported his political ascent this year. But al-Maliki's supporters say he must act carefully, that a heavy-handed approach to the militias could further erode support for a government that has already lost much of its credibility.

Sunni attacks such as Friday night's mortar and bomb attack on the mostly Shiite downtown district of Mahmoudiya win militia groups' public support. "Once we overcome terror, we can stop the militias," said Abbas Bayati, a Shiite lawmaker. "We can't protect the nation. The government cannot disarm the militias if they are a force that is protecting the people from terrorism."

To the disappointment and frustration of U.S. officials, al-Maliki asked the military last week to release a Shiite cleric and militia leader arrested for alleged involvement in kidnappings for ransom, death squads and the manufacture of bombs.

The Army "had solid and substantial intelligence that led them to detain him," a U.S. military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But there have also been signs that al-Maliki's government is seeking ways to neutralize the militias. Shiite politicians say the government has enlisted al-Sadr to crack down on the more unruly groups acting in the name of his Mahdi Army, a highly fractured militia of which he is spiritual leader.

Meanwhile yesterday, a senior U.S. diplomat said the United States had shown "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq but is ready to talk with any group except al-Qaida in Iraq to facilitate national reconciliation.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera television, Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, offered an unusually candid assessment of America's position in Iraq.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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