NAJAF, Iraq - Iraqi security forces staged an unsuccessful raid yesterday to seize rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite Muslim leader blamed by the United States for a surge in violence in this holy city that has claimed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lives.
In their first such move against al-Sadr, members of the Iraqi National Guard and police officers tried to arrest the firebrand leader at his home here in Najaf near the sacred Imam Ali shrine, the base from which he had urged followers to rise up and eject U.S. forces.
After two days of pitched battles between his supporters and the Americans, fighting eased yesterday.
Even as Iraqi forces made their move against al-Sadr, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told reporters at a news conference in Baghdad that the government had received "positive messages" from the cleric and concluded that, in effect, he was not to blame for the violence.
"These are bandits and gangs trying to hide behind Muqtada Sadr," Allawi said of the militants. "We don't think those are his people. There is no statement from him committing himself to them. ... That's why I say it's not him."
Allawi also unveiled a long-awaited amnesty program - albeit much more limited in scope than expected - for people linked to Iraq's bloody 15-month-old insurgency.
In Najaf, which saw the fiercest fighting in Iraq since May, only sporadic conflict was reported yesterday. U.S. helicopters and warplanes droned overhead, and occasional mortar rounds whistled and exploded in the abandoned streets.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said they had made progress in retaking control of a cemetery close to the Imam Ali shrine that was being used as a base and weapons storehouse for members of al-Sadr's Al Mahdi militia. The sprawling graveyard, pocked with caves and mausoleums, was the scene of running battles between militants and U.S. Marines, sometimes reaching hand-to-hand fighting "at the range you can smell a man," Lt. Col. John Mayer said.
"This is the most intense combat I've seen," said Capt. Coby Moran, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.
U.S. officials had put the death toll of militants at 300 on Friday but acknowledged that such battlefield estimates "are always iffy." Al-Sadr's aides said the figure was closer to three dozen.
Yesterday's action culminated in the surprise move by Iraqi police and the Iraqi National Guard to swarm into al-Sadr's home and arrest him.
"We surrounded the house, but he was not at home," said Gen. Ghalib Hadi Jazaery, Najaf's chief of police.
He said his officers were enforcing an arrest warrant issued last year against al-Sadr in the murder of a rival cleric. U.S. troops tried to execute the warrant in April, igniting a Shiite uprising that lasted two months and killed hundreds of Iraqis before ending in an uneasy cease-fire.
"We want to clean up this city from this devil," Jazaery said.
There was confusion over who ordered yesterday's arrest attempt. U.S. officials said they were not involved in the raid. One Iraqi National Guard commander, Lt. Col. Aqeel Khalil, accused Jazaery of grabbing 130 of his men for the raid without authorization. He said a guardsman was killed, nine were injured and 17 were missing.
"They've become shaken and scared," Khalil said. "They're in low spirits."
The move against al-Sadr came two hours before the expiration of a 6 p.m. deadline set by Najaf Gov. Adnan Zurfi for all militants hailing from outside Najaf to leave the city.
Allawi, at his Baghdad news conference, said that of the 1,000 militants whom U.S. and Iraqi forces say they have captured, many dissociated themselves from al-Sadr during questioning. He reiterated allegations by Iraqi officials that most of the fighters came from cities outside Najaf or other countries, particularly Iran, or are convicted criminals out to wreak havoc.
The seeming contradiction between the attempt to seize al-Sadr and Allawi's conciliatory words might be part of a delicate political balancing act.
The transitional government is keen to stamp out the lawlessness and violence that have angered Iraqis since the end of the U.S.-led invasion last year, but officials also desperately want to avoid setting off a rebellion among Iraq's long-suppressed majority Shiites. The prime minister is a Shiite.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.