Arrest of Sunni Leader Sought in Iraq
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The Shiite-led Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant Thursday for the top leader of the country’s Sunni minority _ a move certain to inflame already raging sectarian violence in Iraq.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shiite, announced on state television that Harith al-Dhari was wanted for inciting terrorism and violence among the Iraqi people.
Al-Dhari, head of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, is an extreme hard-liner who recently mocked a government offer of reconciliation in return for abandoning the insurgency. But the move against him threatens to drive many moderate Sunnis out of the political system.
Already, moderate Sunnis have been threatening for weeks to leave the government and take up arms. If that happens, it would likely lead to a full-fledged civil war and make it much harder for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq.
The warrant was issued on a day when at least 49 Iraqis died violently and the U.S. military announced the deaths of four more American soldiers. Sunnis and Shiites could not agree on whether all hostages had been released from a mass abduction in Baghdad two days earlier, and one man said he’d been beaten by the kidnappers.
In southern Iraq, a convoy of civilians traveling near Nasiriyah was hijacked Thursday, according to Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. He said preliminary reports suggested 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.
Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for the Sunni association, condemned the warrant for al-Dhari’s arrest.
``This government should resign before the Iraqi people force it to resign,″ al-Faidi told Al-Jazeera television from Jordan. ``The association calls on its people to be calm.″
Al-Faidi accused the interior minister ``of supporting terrorism by covering for (Shiite) militias that are killing the Iraqi people.″
Earlier this year, the Sunni association blamed the Interior Ministry for the killing of a nephew and cousin of al-Dhari. Their bodies were found in a bullet-riddled vehicle in Baghdad.
Al-Dhari regularly travels between Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, as well as Syria, Jordan and Egypt. He was believed to be in Jordan when the arrest warrant was issued Thursday night.
Al-Dhari, who is about 65, is an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and the U.S. occupation. On Tuesday, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called him a hard-liner with ``nothing to do but incite sectarian and ethnic sedition.″
There is precedent for an arrest warrant leading to violence in Iraq.
In April 2004, a U.S. warrant against radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr prompted a two-week uprising by his Mahdi Army militia. Hundreds were killed.
Al-Maliki, despite heavy pressure from the United States, has done nothing to wipe out the Mahdi Army. Its benefactor, al-Sadr, is a key backer of the prime minister.
The Mahdi Army was believed responsible for kidnapping scores of people from a Higher Education Ministry office building in Baghdad on Tuesday. The aftermath of that mass abduction has turned into a propaganda war.
On Thursday, the Sunni higher education minister called the Interior Ministry ``a farce″ for not preventing the crime and claimed more than half the 150 victims were still in the hands of Shiite abductors.
But National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite, said everyone had been freed and accused Arab satellite broadcasters and Western media of hostile reporting to incite sectarian hatred in Iraq.
Within hours, however, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, was amending that account, saying all the Higher Education Ministry employees were free but that others taken from the building were still hostages. He gave no numbers.
A Sunni who said he was among those abducted and released claimed his arm was broken by the kidnappers. He said he saw them kill at least three hostages after taking them to empty houses in Baghdad’s Sadr City Shiite slum, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army.
The man, who goes by the name Abu Kadhim, or father of Kadhim, would not allow use of his full name for fear of further trouble with the Mahdi Army, which he blamed for his torture and 2 1/2 days in captivity. He disputed Khalaf’s claim that police had freed the kidnap victims.
``Thursday, they just opened the doors and dragged us into trucks. Then they dumped us on Canal Street,″ Abu Kadhim said. That street runs along the Army Canal just west of Sadr City.
``I was lucky,″ he said. ``They only beat me with a wooden club. Others were handcuffed and hanged from the ceiling by their wrists. They were beaten with iron bars. Others, building guards, had cotton shoved in their mouths and tape wound around their heads. They suffocated. One was shot in the back. The managers in the building and people with higher degrees, masters and doctorates, were in a different room. I could hear them screaming like women. Then it was quiet. I think they died.″
Abu Kadhim’s story could not be independently confirmed. He was interviewed by telephone.
In Thursday’s deadliest attack in the capital, gunmen fired on a bakery, killing nine people, police said. Such attacks are usually carried out by Sunni militants since most bakeries in the capital are run by Shiites.
The U.S. military announced that three Task Force Lightning soldiers assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, were killed Wednesday in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, one by small arms fire and two by a roadside bomb. A soldier from the Army’s Multinational Corps-Iraq was killed Tuesday by small arms fire during an operation in Baghdad.
The deaths raised the number of American war dead to 2,862. So far this month in Iraq, 44 American service members have been killed or died.