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U.S. soldiers raid homes of Sunni Muslim clerics critical of offensive

BAGHDAD, Iraq—American troops raided the homes and offices of two prominent Sunni Muslim clerics Thursday after both men made fiery public speeches condemning the U.S.-led offensive in Fallujah and voicing their support for insurgents.

There also were rising signs of friction between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with Sunni clerics complaining that Shiite religious leaders had failed to condemn the U.S. attacks on the Sunni city of Fallujah.

Sheik Hareth al Dhari, who heads the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents up to 3,000 of Iraq's Sunni mosques, said American and Iraqi forces burst into his home on Baghdad's outskirts after shouting through loudspeakers to send women to safe rooms or "face the consequences."

Al Dhari's son, Muthanna al Dhari, told the al Jazeera television network that the troops confiscated cell phones and personal weapons in the dawn raid. His father was questioned briefly.

Sheik Hareth al Dhari has emerged as one of the most vehement critics of the U.S.-led military presence in Iraq and has become well known for anti-American diatribes that typically stop just short of advocating violence.

Since the Fallujah offensive began, however, al Dhari has deemed Iraqi security forces cooperating with Americans as legitimate targets for attack. Earlier this week, he issued a religious edict ordering Iraqis to boycott January's parliamentary elections to protest the Fallujah assault. A boycott could undermine the elections if it resulted in a lack of representation for Sunnis, who make up about 35 percent of Iraq's population.

Later in the day, American and Iraqi troops targeted another outspoken cleric, arresting Sheik Mahdi al Sumaidaie, his top aide and others during a raid of the Ibn Taymiya mosque in Baghdad.

Earlier Thursday, al Sumaidaie had lambasted the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, for not condemning the American-led offensive in Fallujah.

In an interview with the AFP wire service, al Sumaidaie reminded Shiites that Sunni groups had spoken up in August when U.S. and Iraqi forces massed outside a shrine in a standoff with insurgents in Najaf, the southern Shiite holy city.

"We reproach Sistani for not officially taking a position on the offensive, and we call on him to do so," al Sumaidaie said.

A Sistani aide, who didn't want his name published for fear of fueling the tension, said clerics of the ayatollah's stature typically didn't intervene in military matters. However, Sistani did step in during the Najaf standoff, brokering a last-minute peace agreement with the young rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

Fallujah, the aide said, was different. The city had spun so far out of control that there were no peaceful solutions.

"What could he do?" Sistani's aide asked. "Issue a fatwa saying the Shiites in the army and national guard should desert and not fight in Fallujah? That's nonsense. It's not practical."

Shiites, who represent the majority of Iraqis, are assembling a slate of candidates they hope will sweep the elections. They would benefit if U.S. forces can secure the country for the elections.

Redha Jihad Taqi, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the Shiite political powerhouse supported the government's efforts to restore security to Fallujah. However, he added, the group considers some of the American tactics heavy-handed.

"We regret the destruction of the city," Taqi said. "The American way of handling this situation is very costly politically, logistically and in a humanitarian sense. There were other ways."

When asked whether the group would make a formal statement denouncing the offensive, Taqi paused before saying: "We're in the process of issuing one."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Shatha al Awsy and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report from Baghdad, Qassim Mohammed from Najaf.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.