Aide to Iraqi cleric al-Sadr is slain

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Gunmen shot and killed a prominent aide to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, police said yesterday, and a car bomb killed 15 people after the driver sped past a checkpoint toward a crowded Baghdad marketplace.

Police ordered the driver to stop as he drove past a roadblock in the Dakhil neighborhood on the capital's east side. Officers shot at the car before it could reach the market, triggering an explosion.

"We heard gunshots from the police station and then we saw a big explosion," said Mohammed Abul Khaleq, 22, who was at a kiosk selling cell-phone accessories. "The time of the explosion was around the peak at this market, when people come to shop, eat ice cream and meet friends."

The driver and 14 others were killed, police said, and 45 people were injured. The blast also damaged three restaurants and three barbershops.

The bombing was the first against Shiites in Baghdad since last week, when al-Sadr ordered his militia to halt all attacks, and it was one of three attacks against al-Sadr's supporters yesterday.

Authorities also reported the bodies of 11 men were found in various spots of the capital yesterday, each apparently killed by gunfire. In northern Iraq, the U.S. military reported the Army's first use of a new type of remote-controlled unmanned aircraft. The aircraft was used to kill two Iraqis who were spotted trying to plant a roadside bomb, it said.

The past several days have been relatively quiet in Baghdad. However, it is unclear whether the calm will last, because the holy month of Ramadan begins next week, and that has often been a violent period. The fear is that some extremists are holding their fire now to make a bigger attack during the holy month.

The fatal shooting of al-Sadr aide Mohammed Garaawi late Friday was thought to represent another round in the escalating violence between rival Shiite militia groups. Garaawi was shot 12 times by gunmen outside his home in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, officials said.

Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia is accused of targeting Shiite militias loyal to the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq's largest Shiite political group, who regard Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as their religious leader.

In the past three months, four al-Sistani aides have been killed. Only one slaying has been solved: A stabbing during a robbery by a guard at the al-Sistani compound.

Garaawi's killing might be seen as retaliation and could ratchet up tensions in south Iraq, where rival Shiites have been battling for control of the country's richest oil-producing regions. Garaawi oversaw the tribal affairs office for the al-Sadr organization and was linked to the Mahdi Army.

"This man was very peaceful," said Sheik Salah Ubaidi, an al-Sadr spokesman. "But we think he was targeted because he was a vital member of the Sadr office."

A few miles east of Najaf, a bomb killed five people at a busy marketplace in Kufa.

"These tensions have surfaced in pitched battles, and also in assassinations, not just of Sistani representatives but governors," said Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The governors of two southern Iraqi provinces, Qadisiya and Muthanna, were killed by car bombs a little more than a week apart in August. Al-Sadr's militia is suspected of carrying out both attacks, something al-Sadr denies.

British military officials handed over their last base in the southern city of Basra to Iraqi security forces last week, and are camped at the airport. Their exit is intended to allow Iraqis to police themselves, with the British there for emergencies.

An al-Sadr loyalist issued a warning Friday against U.S. forces entering Basra to replace the British soldiers.

Sam Enriquez writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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