BAGHDAD -- A senior aide to the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was shot to death yesterday as he returned home from Friday prayers in Najaf.
Police declared a curfew in the Shiite holy city and put reinforcements on the streets, fearing a backlash by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia provoked by the killing of Sayyed Riyadh al-Nouri.
Security officials in Najaf said he was in al-Adala neighborhood, a half-mile east of Najaf, when the gunmen pulled over and opened fire, killing him instantly.
His killing is certain to increase tensions between Sadrists and Iraq government security forces, who fought a major battle in Basra last month and have been engaged in heavy fighting in al-Sadr's eastern Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City, in recent days.
Within hours, al-Sadr's office in Najaf issued a statement accusing the U.S. and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government of responsibility, laying blame at "the hands of the occupiers and their tails."
The statement added: "I promise before God and the Iraqi people that I will never forget this blot, and the occupier will never feel safe in our land, while I am alive."
However, al-Sadr's spokesman Salah al-Obeidi urged the cleric's followers to be calm and "not to be dragged into others' plots," the Associated Press reported.
Al-Nouri was a senior official in Najaf and was also related to the cleric by marriage. His sister is married to al-Sadr's brother, Sadrist officials said.
Al-Maliki's office issued a statement condemning the killing and ordered an investigation. He called on the security forces to "be ready to resist anyone who tries to disturb the security situation in the holy city of Najaf."
Najaf is the holiest Shiite city in Iraq. It is the Iraqi seat of the Shiite religious establishment known as the hawza, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, and houses the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most revered figures in Shiite history.
In recent years it has witnessed a number of assassinations. These include Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr's father, who was killed by assassins in 1999 under Saddam Hussein's regime; Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem al-Khoei, in April 2003 shortly after the invasion; and Ayatollah Mohammed Baker al-Hakim, a prominent Shiite leader and politician who was killed by a car bomb in August 2003.
Sadrist officials said memorial services will be held in al-Tusi Mosque in Najaf today and in Baghdad, Syria and Iran.
Within an hour of the killing a rocket, apparently fired at the Green Zone, struck the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad.
Hotel officials, guards and neighbors said no one was injured but the missile punched through a foot of concrete and destroyed a first-floor room on the east side of the hotel. In contrast, police later said three people had been killed.
The remains were inspected by American troops at the scene, who adjudged the missile likely to be a Katyusha.
This and other rockets and mortars have frequently been fired at the Green Zone from Shiite-dominated areas in east Baghdad, including Sadr City.
American and Iraqi government forces have been fighting on the southern edge of Sadr City in recent days intending, among other things, to curb such attacks.