BAGHDAD, Iraq—The standoff between the American military and Muqtada al-Sadr escalated Friday when U.S.-backed Iraqi special forces detained a senior aide to the radical Shiite Muslim cleric.
A statement released by the American military didn't name the detainee, who was captured in an early morning raid and accused of involvement with "organized kidnapping, torture and murder of Iraqi civilians" and "the assassination of numerous Iraqi Security Forces members and government officials." Al-Sadr officials said it was Abdul Hadi al-Darraji, a spokesman and senior adviser.
Al-Sadr organizers denied the charges and said al-Darraji was the victim of U.S. aggression, and supporters said the detention could lead to unrest.
"We are fed up with these calls for being patient, to calm things down; the Americans have probably taken that as being weak," said Muhammad Hussein, a fabric shop owner and al-Sadr loyalist. "There should be a reaction, a strong reaction."
The mounting tension between al-Sadr officials and the U.S. military underscores a central question about the Bush administration's new security plan for Baghdad: How far will American commanders, and the Iraqi forces they've trained, go to neutralize the young firebrand cleric?
If al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia is allowed to blend into the population during the Baghdad operation, and U.S. and Iraqi forces concentrate mainly on Sunni Muslim insurgents, their traditional target, it could leave al-Sadr stronger than ever.
But a confrontation with al-Sadr and his gunmen might destabilize the country even further. The American military's last fight with al-Sadr, in July and August of 2004, came when then-Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was a strong U.S. proponent and al-Sadr was a political outsider. Times have changed.
While al-Sadr's militia has been implicated in operating death squads that have killed thousands of Sunnis, helping to plunge the nation into civil war, his organization has the loyalty of at least 30 parliament members and is a key backer of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to al-Maliki, said the prime minister's office wasn't told about Friday's operation to nab al-Darraji.
"Unfortunately, I haven't got any information about it," said al-Rikabi, sounding displeased. "Any sensitive operation should be carried out in coordination with the government."
During a news conference this week, al-Maliki denied that his government is soft on al-Sadr by saying that Iraqi forces had detained at least 400 Mahdi Army militiamen during the past few weeks. An al-Sadr official in Najaf, Abdul Razq al-Nadawi, said Friday that the figure represented detentions since February 2004, not this month alone.
In the weeks since President Bush announced that some 21,500 American troops are to be brought in to buttress forces stationed in Baghdad and western Iraq, U.S. officers have been careful when talking about al-Sadr.
The issue of militias, they say, is up to the Iraqi government. But many in Iraq question whether al-Maliki, who came to power with the backing of al-Sadr's organization, has the will or the means to shut down the cleric and his militia.
Al-Sadr's forces seem unsure what to expect. During the past two weeks, McClatchy Newspapers' Iraqi correspondents have seen militia checkpoints on the outskirts of Sadr City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad of at least 2 million people, come and go as young men in black, carrying AK-47s, appear one day, disappear the next, then reappear. In other neighborhoods, there aren't as many gunmen at al-Sadr checkpoints as there had been, but others can be seen lounging within shooting distance.
Banners were strung up outside Sadr City on Friday, some saying in red letters that American soldiers should leave Iraq, others saying that al-Sadr's militia will be patient until the time is right, then act.
"This barbarian action done by the occupation forces (al-Darraji's capture) will not pass peacefully. First, we will do peaceful popular demonstrations all over Iraq condemning this action," said al-Nadawi, the Sadrist official in Najaf. "The Americans must know that they play with fire by targeting the Sadr bloc; we will wait for the instructions of the leader . . . Muqtada al-Sadr."
U.S. officials are left to balance the security threat that al-Sadr poses against his political importance to the prime minister and much of Iraq's majority Shiite population.
The news release detailing the raid Friday, for example, didn't identify al-Sadr or his militia, instead using phrases such as "illegal armed group" and "death squad."
The No. 2 American military commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, said earlier this month, "I'm not sure we take him down."
"There are some extreme elements (of the Mahdi Army) . . . and we will go after them," Odierno said. "I will allow the government to decide whether (al-Sadr) is part of it or not. He is currently working within the political system."
In an interview with McClatchy this week, Army Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a senior U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said: "We're not necessarily going after the militia. If the militia doesn't come after us, then we won't go after them."
Bleichwehl continued: "You plan for the worst and you continue to dialogue. We'll minimize the application of military power wherever we can in lieu of diplomacy. That's the goal. Our mission is not to take down the militias; that's a function of the government."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Qassim Zein contributed to this report from Najaf, Iraq.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.