Iraq seeking arrest of key Sunni cleric

Move could exacerbate sectarian tensions

November 17, 2006|By Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi | Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Iraq's Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant yesterday for the country's leading Sunni Arab cleric, accusing him of colluding with insurgents, a potentially explosive charge that could exacerbate tensions between the country's warring sectarian groups and further divide a fragile national government.

Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, a convoy of civilians traveling near Nasiriyah was hijacked yesterday, according to Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. He said preliminary reports suggested that there could be as many as 14 people captured, and that the convoy included about 19 vehicles.

ABC News reported that four of those captured were believed to be Americans. Nasiriyah is the capital of Dhi Qar province, where Italy formally handed over security responsibility to Iraqi forces in late September.

Violence and crime on the streets of Baghdad continued yesterday. At least 17 people were killed by bombs and gunmen in the capital. In addition, gunmen dressed as police commandos kidnapped 15 people from a tea shop in a mixed neighborhood in central Baghdad, according to authorities.

The move against Harith al-Dhari, the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, comes two days after a daytime kidnapping in Baghdad ruptured the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, setting Sunni politicians against Shiites.

In an appearance on state-run TV late last night, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, announced that Dhari was wanted for inciting violence. "The government's policy is that anyone who tries to spread division and strife among the Iraq people will be chased by our security agencies," al-Bolani said.

Al-Dhari has been a vocal, sometimes sarcastic, critic of the government, questioning the legitimacy of Saddam Hussein's criminal trials and ridiculing the government's reconciliation efforts.

"The political process that the security of Iraq is depending on is a failing process, so that is why the security is failing and deteriorating," he said on Al-Arabiya television Saturday.

The warrant against al-Dhari is virtually certain to rekindle threats of a boycott of the government by Sunni Arab politicians. Sunnis have warned that such a walkout would have dire consequences, further entrenching a brutal cycle of civil war and pushing more ordinary Sunnis toward the insurgency. It would also be a lethal blow to a coalition government that U.S. policy-makers had hoped would pacify Iraq's often hostile sects and ethnic groups.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad spent months persuading mainstream parties representing the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority to join the Shiite-led government. But in recent months Shiite militiamen using the cover of the official security apparatus have waged a nightly subterranean war against Sunnis, whose bodies show up in drainage ditches with gunshot wounds, burn marks and other signs of torture every morning.

Earlier in the week, a similar mass kidnapping of academics from a Sunni-led education ministry office intensified a mounting political crisis. Witnesses said that gunmen dressed in government-issued uniforms carted away as many as 150 people. Sunni politicians charge that as many as 80 are missing - a claim denied by al-Maliki and the Interior Ministry, which said everyone had been released unharmed.

Al-Maliki has promised to disarm and disband the Shiite militias wreaking havoc on the street. But Sunnis say the government has not done enough, particularly in failing to pursue leads provided by those who had been released in this week's kidnapping.

Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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