BAGHDAD, Iraq—With U.S. forces surrounding a shrine full of fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf, and Iraqi police talking of arresting the firebrand leader, clashes raged on Sunday in the fourth day of a persistent and bloody uprising.
It was not clear, in the midst of the chaos and violence, what would come of al-Sadr or his militia, the Mahdi Army—named for the Shiite messiah.
A move to arrest him could spark clashes even more intense than those of the last few days.
Some 415 Iraqis have been killed, and 513 wounded during fighting that began Thursday, according to the Iraqi health ministry and U.S. military officials.
During Sunday morning fighting in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, a U.S. OH-58 Kiowa helicopter made a "precautionary landing." The pilot and co-pilot were uninjured.
At least four American troops have been killed and 22 wounded in four days of fighting, according to U.S. military officials. Al-Sadr representatives have accused U.S. officials of underreporting casualties.
The situation in Najaf, Baghdad and other battleground cities seems to be unraveling quickly, with mixed signals coming from Iraqi and al-Sadr representatives.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said there is some thought that al-Sadr might not fully control his forces anymore, as his lieutenants act independently.
"We don't know whether Sadr is directing this or not," the official said, referring to fighting in Najaf and elsewhere. "It's not a consistent, integrated operation that we're seeing at the national level."
The dynamics of groups fighting under the al-Sadr banner are difficult to document. Both Najaf and Sadr City have been at times impossible to enter.
In Sadr City, a Knight Ridder reporter traveling on the outskirts was caught in a firefight Sunday, and the day before, a Knight Ridder photographer narrowly missed being hit by mortars. In Najaf on Thursday it was possible to enter the Imam Ali shrine, albeit dashing from one street corner to the next during sniper fire. Two days later, the roads were blocked by Mahdi fighters in some areas and Marines in others.
Furthering the sense of upheaval in Iraq, the nation's top Shiite cleric, Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, reportedly suffering from heart trouble, secretly left his Najaf home last week for London. A release from his London offices Sunday confirmed that al-Sistani is now in "a specialized hospital to undergo the necessary medical tests and treatment."
Political uncertainty and heavy street fighting have threatened the Iraqi government's authority. Not yet two months old, it has sought to project confidence but is looking increasingly ineffective.
On top of the persistent Sunni unrest in cities to the west and north of Baghdad and the Shiite clashes to the south and in the capital, there has been a rash of kidnappings targeting both political figures and businessmen.
The most recent high-profile victim was an Iranian diplomat, Faridoun Jihani. An Arab satellite news channel on Sunday broadcast footage showing both Jihani and his various forms of identification, including his passport. The kidnappers said they'd taken Jihani, who was traveling toward the southern city of Karbala, because he was trying to foment sectarian unrest.
In its latest effort to gain control, the Iraqi justice ministry announced Sunday that the government is reinstating capital punishment.
Murderers, kidnappers and drug traffickers are eligible for the death penalty. Also eligible are people endangering national security.
Government officials said they reluctantly renewed the death penalty, which had been frequently and summarily applied by Saddam Hussein but banned by the prior U.S.-led administration in Iraq, as an exceptional measure.
"The killers, the kidnappers, the evildoers who hinder the political process—those who don't want to see a democratic Iraq—all these factors have led the government to reinstate capital punishment," said Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin, a death penalty opponent who said he nonetheless stood in solidarity with the attempt to quell the violence.
Amin, along with other government officials, said the government would not use the death penalty to silence political dissent.
It was unclear if al-Sadr, implicated in the killing of a rival cleric last year, would be eligible for the death penalty. Al-Sadr is wanted on an arrest warrant.
"The judge will have to consider the law as it comes before him, not when the crime was committed," said Minister of State Adnan al Janabie, when asked if the death penalty applies to crimes that occurred before the decree. Yet Amin said the law, as he read it, would not apply retroactively.
Najaf police chief Gen. Ghalib Hadi Jazaery gave a press briefing Sunday in which he simultaneously confirmed that he and the national guard had been to al-Sadr's house, ostensibly to arrest him, while also saying he has no plans to arrest al-Sadr.
In comments aired on Arab satellite news channels, Jazaery said that "if we can, we will put him in jail." He also said, "we didn't (arrest him), in order to keep the peace in the city."
By way of explanation, he offered that, "I went to his house with a captain from the national guard and he wasn't there. The door was locked."
Al-Sadr is widely thought to be hiding somewhere other than in his well-known Najaf homes—a fact probably known to the police chief.
Asked about the possibility of the new Iraqi government arresting al-Sadr, a spokesman for the cleric, Abdul Hadi Daraji, scoffed.
"What government are you talking about," he said. "Who do you think is in control?"
Speaking of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Daraji continued: "Who is Allawi? Who is he to be looking for Muqtada? We are the ones looking for Allawi; he is the wanted man."
Allawi visited Najaf Sunday and implored al-Sadr and his men to disarm. "The gunmen have to leave the holy places quickly, and respect the law once again," he said.
While there has been much confusion in Najaf about who is threatening to do what to whom, one thing was certain Sunday: the U.S. military confirmed that Marines have encircled the Imam Ali shrine in downtown Najaf. The forces are not close to the site, the most sacred in Shiite Islam, but they are keeping a perimeter to prevent Mahdi gunmen holed up inside from escaping.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ