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Iraq issues new arrest warrant against anti-US Shi’ite cleric

Party leader is sought in slaying

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press / March 3, 2010

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BAGHDAD - In a surprise move ahead of weekend elections, Iraq’s highest judicial body has renewed an arrest warrant against an anti-US Shi’ite leader for the slaying of a moderate cleric nearly seven years ago, a senior government official and a spokesman for the leader said yesterday.

Moqtada al-Sadr, who heads one of the major Shi’ite parties competing against Iraq’s Shi’ite 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.

US officials blamed Sadr for the April 10, 2003, assassination of Shi’ite 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 Shi’ite clergy.

Iraqi authorities issued a warrant in 2004 for Sadr in Khoie’s slaying. Instead, the warrant was quietly shelved as part of the cease-fire deals the Americans accepted under pressure from Shi’ite clerics and politicians.

They feared a backlash if foreign forces dealt strongly with the scion of one of the Shi’ites’ most prestigious families.

But the Associated Press has obtained a new arrest warrant dated Feb. 7 that lists Sadr along with 13 other men as wanted in the killing of 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. Sadr’s name is sixth on the list.

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