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Another aide to Shiite leader Sistani is killed

Times Staff Writer

Gunmen killed an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the southern city of Basra, police said Saturday, the latest in a string of attacks targeting associates of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric.

The shooting Friday night was a sign of continuing tensions after clashes last week between Shiite militias. Police said Muslim Battat, an imam, was killed after evening prayers at a central Basra mosque.

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country’s largest Shiite political group, claims allegiance to Sistani, which has put its followers at odds with those loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

More than 50 people were killed Tuesday in fighting between the militias of the two Shiite groups in the southern city of Karbala, which raised fear of all-out warfare.

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It was the fourth time in three months that someone associated with Sistani has been killed. In June, one of his representatives was found shot to death in Najaf. Sistani’s top advisor on legal affairs was stabbed to death in July. Last month, another aide was shot to death in Najaf.

A guard at the Sistani compound in Najaf was arrested and accused of stabbing the legal advisor during a robbery, not for political purposes.

Whatever the motive for that killing or the others, the repeated targeting of Sistani associates underscores the ominous situation in the south, which has experienced increased violence as Britain decreases its troop presence there.

Unlike Sadr, Sistani rarely involves himself publicly in politics and lends no support to any of Iraq’s political factions. But he is regarded by many of Sadr’s militant loyalists as a barrier to their aspirations for power and influence in the Shiite south.

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Sadr has denied that his militia was involved in the Karbala bloodshed and ordered it to halt activities for six months while an investigation is conducted to root out what he called rogue elements. The U.S. military Saturday called the move “encouraging” and said that if the order held, it could allow the military to make headway in the war by focusing more on fighting Sunni Muslim insurgents.

It was not immediately clear whether Sadr’s announcement was having any effect.

Early Saturday, residents of Sadr City, his northeast Baghdad stronghold, said U.S. troops raided a section of the district and detained eight men.

The U.S. military announced that it had detained eight men during predawn raids targeting Shiite militiamen. It did not say where the raids took place, but its description of the operation was similar to that described by the Sadr City residents.

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According to residents, soldiers passed out leaflets accusing militias of being agents of Iran and working to increase Iranian influence in Iraq. The United States has long accused Shiite-dominated Iran of providing weapons and training to Shiite fighters in Iraq, an accusation Iran denies.

Also Saturday, Baghdad police reported finding the bodies of 15 unidentified men who were thought to be victims of sectarian killings. All had been shot.

tina.susman@latimes.com

Special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.

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