Hard-line Iraqi clerics group shut down

Times Staff Writer

A government-sponsored Sunni religious foundation Wednesday closed the main office of the influential Muslim Scholars Assn., a group of Sunni clerics suspected of ties to insurgents.

The clerics' group, most of whose senior leaders left the country in the last year, protested the move in what amounted to the latest example of the split among Sunni Arabs between those aligned with and opposed to U.S. forces.

The association has been critical of Sunni factions that have abandoned the insurgency and joined forces with the Americans against Al Qaeda-linked groups. It also has been vocal in its disdain for the government led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Muslim.

The Sunni Endowment, which is responsible for managing mosques, sent security forces to the Muslim Scholars Assn. headquarters in the Umm Qura mosque in west Baghdad to order staff members to leave by noon, according to the group.

"Today, Iraqi army forces came and removed the guards of the Muslim Scholars Assn. from the offices and forced the radio employees to shut down the broadcasting. They handed over the offices with all the possessions to the Sunni Endowment guards," said the group's spokesman, Muthanna Dhari.

Dhari is the son of the group's leader, Harith Dhari, who was sought for questioning last year by the government and left for Jordan.

The head of the Sunni Endowment, Ahmed Abdel Ghafour Samarie, had cordial relations with the association until this year. However, the split among Sunnis has spread to the religious arena.

"The tribes and tribesmen have risen up," Samarie told Al Hurra television Wednesday night. "Now they realized that Al Qaeda elements had devastated them, killed their men and assaulted their honor.

"When they stand against the criminals, regrettably the Muslim Scholars Assn. stands by Al Qaeda's side. Qaeda kills, and the Muslim Scholars justify it for them."

The Muslim Scholars Assn. has hardened its stance in recent months. In September, it issued an appeal for insurgent groups to stay united and not be lured into working with the Americans.

Harith Dhari, whose grandfather helped wage the 1920 revolt against British occupation, has been suspected of links to the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a present-day insurgent group. Even that movement has split, with some factions aligning with the Americans.

Also Wednesday, the Iraqi Cabinet said it had resubmitted to the parliament a measure to allow former employees of Saddam Hussein's government to regain their jobs. The legislation had been put before the parliament in September but stalled.

Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said it was not clear when the legislation might be approved. "This is one of the controversial laws," he said.

The legislation seeks to establish a process for fired employees to contest allegations that they were high-ranking members of Hussein's Baath Party.

After the 2003 overthrow of Hussein, U.S. authorities banned the top four levels of Baath Party officials from civil service. The move denied Iraq of much of its technical expertise and enlarged the pool of idle young men open to recruitment by the Sunni-led insurgency.

It was unclear whether the latest draft would lift the prohibition; the version submitted in September banned the top five levels in the party hierarchy from holding government positions.

Also in the capital, police said a bomb killed two civilians on a road just outside the Green Zone, the enclave where the Iraqi government and foreign diplomats are based. Three employees of the Oil Ministry driving in east Baghdad in a government vehicle were fatally shot.

Near Iskandariya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a guest house of the Girtan tribe. The explosion left two people dead, police said.

The Girtan tribe is aligned with the Americans in fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents.

Just north of Baghdad, Sheik Shadhir Abid Salim Assaf, the leader of Sunni tribesmen aligned with the Americans in Taji, said his fighters were attacked by U.S. forces who mistook them for militants, killing as many as 40 people.

Asked about the incident, the U.S. military said it had been attacked by armed men and had killed two dozen suspected militants in self-defense. The conflicting accounts could not be immediately reconciled.

In Baghdad, an armor- piercing bomb killed a U.S. soldier and wounded five others, the military said. An Iraqi civilian also died in the explosion.

According to icasualties.org, at least 3,863 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Times staff writers Saif Hameed, Said Rifai, Wail Alhafith, Saif Rasheed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.

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