Sheikh Hazem al-Araji, an aide to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was briefly taken into custody by U.S. forcesTuesday (AP)
From CNN, with thanks to DC Watson:
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — As Iraq’s most powerful Shiite clerics warned the U.S.-led coalition that it “must pay” for the current crisis in the country, the head of U.S. Central Command asked the Pentagon for roughly 10,000 more soldiers.
In a statement issued Monday after a meeting with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the clerics and members of the country’s religious authority also cautioned the coalition against doing battle in the holy city of Najaf, and warned against any attempt to kill al-Sadr.
“The current crisis in Iraq has risen to a level that is beyond any political groups, including the Governing Council, and it is now an issue that is between the religious authority and the coalition forces,” the statement said.
“Those who have brought on this crisis must pay for what they have done.”
Participating in the meeting was Mullah Mohammed Redha Ali Al-Sistani, the son of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayadh, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sayid al-Hakim, Grand Ayatollah Bashir Hussein al-Najafi, Mohammed Sayid Redha al-Sistani and Sayid Ali al-Sibzwari.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the recognized leader of the country’s majority Shiite Muslims, is known to keep al-Sadr at arm’s length. But the concerns voiced by the clerics Monday reflected a desire to avoid the kind of conflict in Najaf that was recently seen in Fallujah, where several U.S. troops and many more Iraqis died in recent fighting.
Al-Sadr is currently holed up in a mosque in Najaf, where his militia, the Mehdi Army, patrolled the streets Monday after negotiating to allow local police back into three of their stations. An al-Sadr deputy said the militia would allow the police to return only if U.S. forces left the area.
The battle with al-Sadr’s forces began earlier this month, after the coalition shut down his newspaper, Al Hawza, for allegedly inciting violence and then arrested an aide on charges of complicity in the slaying last year of another Shiite cleric.
An Iraqi judge has also issued a warrant for al-Sadr’s arrest in connection with the killing.
A top aide of al-Sadr, Sheikh Hazem al-Araji, was detained and questioned by U.S. forces and then released Tuesday, according to a U.S. Army officer.
“After questioning, we determined that he is not part of the violence and appears to have been a force for promoting discussion,” 1st Armored Division commander Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey said.
Al-Araji was on a list of al-Sadr associates wanted for questioning by the U.S. military.
Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said Monday the U.S. forces’ mission is “to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr,” the phrase coalition military leaders use to refer to their missions against other so-called “high level targets.”
Najaf, Kufa and neighboring Karbala are the only cities remaining under the Mehdi Army’s control since U.S. forces put down al-Sadr-inspired rebellions in other cities over the weekend.