BAGHDAD — Iraqi police responded with an iron fist Friday to the violence that threw the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala into chaos earlier this week, arresting more than 300 people in a show of force against Shiite militias.
Iraqi officials say Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordered the arrests, a possible indication that Maliki, a Shiite who's under intense international pressure to reconcile political rifts between Sunni Muslims and Shiites, intends to crack down on the Mahdi Army. Witnesses in Karbala blame the militia, loosely controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, for Tuesday's violence during a religious ceremony.
But an official with the Sadrists, the Mahdi Army's political wing, said Friday that the Iraqi police were arresting anyone who was affiliated with the militia, including politicians and government workers who weren't involved in the violence. The official asked that he not be named because he wasn't allowed to speak on behalf of his party.
Salah al Obaidi, a spokesman for Sadr, echoed those concerns during Friday prayers. He warned security officials that they shouldn't arrest Mahdi Army members or Sadrists unless they played a role in the violence. But he also reprimanded the Mahdi Army, calling the violence in Karbala "a big failure in the great jihad."
In apparent reaction to the violence in Karbala, Sadr on Thursday issued a surprise order to his militia to stand down for six months while he reins in offshoots of his group that have begun to pursue their own agendas.
Local authorities said police weren't carrying out blanket arrests of Sadrists. Aqeel al Khazaali, the governor of the Karbala province, said that anyone "who is suspected of having any involvement in the Karbala incident was detained, regardless of their affiliations or positions." He declined to say how many of those arrested are members of the Mahdi Army and whether politicians or government employees affiliated with Sadrists have been detained.
Abdul Kereem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, also wouldn't say whether those arrested Friday were members of the Mahdi Army. The ministry has been heavily infiltrated by members of the Badr Corps, a Shiite militia that's a rival to the Mahdi Army.
Many Iraqi officials blame Tuesday's daylong fighting on an oft-cited villain: remnants of Saddam Hussein's predominantly Sunni Baath party. Maliki has charged that Baathists have infiltrated the Mahdi Army.
Sunni lawmakers have accused the Maliki-led government of letting the Mahdi Army run amok. U.S. officials say members of the group have ties to Iran and play an increasingly prevalent role in the violence that's plaguing Iraq.
In an unrelated development Friday, Vice President Tareq al Hashimi, a Sunni, announced that the government has agreed to comply with a Sunni demand to release prisoners who haven't been charged with crimes. Many Sunni lawmakers say that the majority of inmates being held without charges are Sunnis.
Hashimi said that during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in about 10 days, the government will release 50 detainees a day from U.S.-run prisons, which hold about 23,000 prisoners.
Sadr decided to halt his militia's activity after it was widely reported that the Mahdi Army was to blame for starting the violence in Karbala, which left at least 50 dead, including Shiite pilgrims. The cleric, who Maliki and others say no longer has a strong grip on the militia, apparently feared a backlash against the Mahdi Army from fellow Shiites.
Since Sadr issued his order, there haven't been any major incidents involving the Mahdi Army. Police usually find at least a dozen unidentified bodies in the streets of Baghdad every day, due to sectarian killings. But only five bodies were found Thursday and six Friday.
Some residents said they were pleased that Sadr had decided to rein in his militia, even temporarily. Besides lowering the violence, it will help to determine whether the cleric or rogue factions of the Mahdi Army are to blame for the sectarian killings.
"I think it is a good step for Mr. Muqtada," said Basra resident Raheem Abdul Hussein, 36, a Shiite. "We know that the government and Sunnis accuse the Sadrists of all the bad things in the country, so this is a chance to see who is really behind it."
(Collins reports for The Fresno Bee. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Sahar Issa and Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)