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Killing of Sadr aide brings curfew, fear

Special to The Times

A senior aide to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr was shot dead outside his home Friday in the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf, prompting suspicions that either rival Shiite parties or competing factions inside the Sadr movement were responsible.

Police immediately enforced a curfew on Najaf to try to prevent a recurrence of the Shiite-on-Shiite violence that raged from Basra to Baghdad in late March and resulted in an estimated 600 Iraqi deaths.

The assassination of Riyadh Noori, whose sister was married to Sadr’s brother Murtada, raised fears of greater violence among Iraq’s Shiite religious majority at a time when the United States has heralded security gains and plans troop reductions.

Police said gunmen in a car opened fire on Noori as he returned home from Friday prayers. Noori, Sadr’s confidant and office manager in Najaf, was involved in negotiations last year with the Sadr movement’s militia, the Mahdi Army, and its main rival, the Badr Organization militia of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, the biggest Shiite party, after the armed groups clashed in Karbala.

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Analysts and Sadrists refused to rule out any possibility regarding who was responsible for Noori’s death.

A senior Sadr official, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said suspects included Mahdi Army breakaway factions as well as SIIC. The official did not discount the possibility that a Mahdi Army splinter group, with ties to SIIC or Iran, was responsible. “They want to disgrace the reputation of the Mahdi Army,” he said.

Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, the director of Al Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies, which advises the Iraqi government, said the Mahdi Army had at least four main factions: those loyal to Sadr, those funded by Iran, criminal gangs, and others who are in tacit or open cooperation with the Americans to improve their neighborhoods. He suspected the involvement of Iranian-backed or criminal elements of the Mahdi Army in Noori’s death.

“It’s going to be a fight among the Sadrist people themselves because three or four parts of the Mahdi Army are splintering,” Ghitaa said.

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Still others were ready to put the blame solely on SIIC’s Badr militia wing.

“It was likely carried out by Badr corps as a powerful signal/reprisal to Muqtada,” said Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “His assassination will bring reprisals. Its significance is that this conflict may now shift from foot soldier militias shooting in the streets to assassination of leaders -- the same thing happened in Lebanon and is still happening there.”

Noori was long considered a controversial figure. He was suspected of involvement in the April 2003 death of Abdel Majid Khoei, the scion of a Shiite religious family that rivaled the Sadrs. Khoei had returned to Najaf with help from the Americans and was visiting Najaf’s Imam Ali shrine when a crowd beat and stabbed him.

Gunmen in January of this year assassinated another Sadr follower, Yasser Mudafer, also suspected of involvement in the 2003 killing.

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However, some observers were skeptical that the Khoei death triggered the attack on Noori. The recent history of Najaf and the south has included a string of unsolved slayings, notably, the assassination of the governors of Diwaniya and Muthanna provinces and of several aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent religious guide for Iraqi Shiites, in the last year.

Until Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who condemned the Noori killing, launched an offensive in Basra on March 25, Sadr had used a seven-month cease-fire to try to rein in his militia’s renegade members. Sadr blamed splinter factions for ruining the movement’s reputation through sectarian killings and criminality.

Maliki’s Shiite-led government, with U.S. military support, has battled gunmen, many of them affiliated with Sadr’s movement, across central and southern Iraq.

In turn, the Sadrists have accused Maliki and SIIC, his main coalition partner, of trying to weaken Sadr’s movement before provincial elections elections in October. Maliki has warned Sadr that he will be barred from the ballot unless he dissolves his militia.

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Some observers said the Noori shooting may have exposed the growing danger of further splintering and fighting in the Mahdi Army, which the cleric has repeatedly tried to purge and discipline in the last two years.

After Noori’s slaying, Sadr called on his followers to exercise restraint and demanded an investigation.

Despite the curfew, a funeral procession for Noori wound its way through Najaf. Hundreds of angry mourners carrying candles chanted anti-American slogans.

“IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are what get the Americans out, not a constitution or candles!” the mourners chanted. “We die and won’t give up! No to America!”

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Some men hurled stones at police until clerics intervened. The violence in the south, once considered a place of relative calm, appeared not to bode well for the U.S. military’s plans to reduce troop numbers.

“Stability in the majority south has been key to our ability to stay [in Iraq] and the relative success of the surge,” said Nasr, the Tufts professor. “The U.S. better come up with a plan soon.”

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested that Americans were ready to work with Sadr, even as Iraqi and U.S. forces continued to strike his fighters in Baghdad’s Sadr City and the south.

Gates called Sadr a “significant political figure,” and said he wanted him to be engaged in Iraqi politics.

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“He has a large following,” Gates said. “And I think that it’s important that he become a part of the process if he isn’t already.”

The fighting didn’t let up Friday. Hours before Noori’s assassination, a pair of airstrikes killed 12 people in Mahdi Army strongholds in Basra and Baghdad.

Separately, a rocket tore into a room of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad but caused no casualties, police said.

A second rocket fell short and killed three people and wounded seven outside the hotel, police said.

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The hotel falls in the pathway of mortar shells and rockets aimed across the Tigris River at the Green Zone, seat of the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy.

In Basra, an airstrike killed six people and wounded one in the Hayaniya district, the British military said in a statement.

A U.S. drone fired a Hellfire missile late Thursday at a group in Sadr City toting rocket-propelled grenades. The missile killed six, the U.S. military said in a statement.

Late Friday, U.S. and Iraqi troops killed at least seven men during clashes in Sadr City, the military said.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Parker reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Fakhrildeen from Najaf. Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Saif Hameed, Saif Rasheed, Said Rifai, Raheem Salman and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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