Iraq’s anti-American cleric al-Sadr faces arrest warrant over 2003 murder

By Qassim Abdul-zahra, AP
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Iraq: Shiite cleric faces warrant over 2003 murder

BAGHDAD — In a surprise move ahead of weekend elections, Iraq’s highest judicial body has renewed an arrest warrant against an anti-U.S. Shiite leader for the murder of a moderate cleric nearly seven years ago, a senior government official and a spokesman for the leader said Tuesday.

Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads one of the major Shiite parties competing against Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, is believed to have been living in neighboring Iran for the past two years. He is not thought to be planning to return to Iraq any time soon, although a rumor has been circulating among supporters that he wanted to make an appearance in Iraq before Sunday’s parliamentary vote.

U.S. officials blamed al-Sadr for the April 10, 2003, assassination of Shiite cleric Majid al-Khoie, who was slain after returning to the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad in hopes of winning support for the Americans from Shiite clergy.

A warrant was issued for al-Sadr in the al-Khoie slaying by Iraqi authorities in 2004, but he was never arrested. Instead, the warrant was quietly shelved as part of the cease-fire deals the Americans accepted under pressure from Shiite clerics and politicians.

They feared a public backlash if foreign occupiers dealt harshly with the scion of one of the Shiites’ most prestigious families.

But The Associated Press has obtained a new arrest warrant dated Feb. 7 that lists al-Sadr along with 13 other men as wanted in the killing of al-Khoie. The copy of the warrant was provided by a top government official familiar with the warrant. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the document.

Officials at the Supreme Judicial Council, an independent body, did not respond to repeated attempts for comment, but the warrant’s authenticity was confirmed by Aydan Khaled Qader, the deputy interior minister in charge of police, who authorizes the arrest of suspects. Al-Sadr’s name is sixth on the list.

Similar moves against al-Sadr in the past have unleashed protests by his followers across much of Iraq.

His militia, the Mahdi Army, fought U.S. forces in Baghdad and across the Shiite south in at least two full-scale rebellions since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But his fighters were routed in a series of U.S.-Iraqi offensives in 2008, forcing al-Sadr to declare a cease-fire, and the issuance of the warrant was unlikely to spark a violent backlash.

His movement, which has 29 seats in the outgoing legislature and performed respectably in provincial elections last year, also has been positioning itself as a political force.

Al-Sadr’s followers have joined a Shiite-led alliance contesting the weekend’s parliamentary elections and are widely expected to have a strong showing in Baghdad’s Shiite areas and the Shiite south. Al-Sadr on Monday urged followers to turn out in large numbers for Sunday’s vote, endorsing the election as a means to rid Iraq of what he called U.S. occupation.

Al-Sadr’s supporters also confirmed the warrant had been issued.

“The warrant is official and it exists,” said Qusai Abdul-Wahab, a Sadrist candidate in the election. “We are doing everything we can to restrain our supporters.”

Sadrist spokesman Salah al-Obeidi said the warrant was “designed to undermine the popular base of Muqtada al-Sadr.” A statement by the politburo of the “Sadrist Trend” — the name by which al-Sadr’s supporters are known — called it an “irresponsible” act by the government.

Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, however, denied that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or anyone in his government had anything to do with the arrest warrant. “This is cheap election propaganda,” he said. “Muqtada al-Sadr is an important figure and his movement is part of the political process.”

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