WASHINGTON – U.S.-led authorities in Iraq are preparing to confront — and perhaps arrest — a militant Shiite Muslim cleric whose militia has battled both American troops and moderate Shiites in recent days, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
The officials said they are growing increasingly worried that the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr (search), is a threat to the U.S.-led military coalition occupying Iraq. However, the Americans also want to avoid touching off rioting or other violence by moving against al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr's followers have engaged in deadly gunbattles with other Shiite groups and American troops in the past two weeks, most recently in the holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad on Tuesday.
U.S. officials believe al-Sadr's actions require a response, said a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. What that response will be is something that will be determined over the next few days, the official said.
The official suggested other Shiite groups or Iraqi security forces also could deal with al-Sadr on their own.
Such unusually strong comments from Pentagon officials could suggest some imminent U.S.-backed move — or perhaps an attempt by American officials to get al-Sadr to back down without a fight.
Arresting or moving against al-Sadr could spark unrest among his followers, many of whom are young, unemployed and armed. But U.S. military and coalition officials are finding it harder to ignore al-Sadr's increasingly open challenges to the American occupation of the country — and to Iraqis who cooperate with it.
Last Friday, al-Sadr declared he had formed his own government to rule Iraq and called on his followers to peacefully protest until that government was recognized. The U.S.-led coalition has arrested other self-declared rulers of parts of Iraq.
Armed al-Sadr supporters staged demonstrations Wednesday in Najaf as armed followers of more moderate Shiite clerics looked on.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, al-Sadr said U.S. forces should announce a timetable for a quick withdrawal from Iraq.
"Whoever cooperates with the occupation forces is not a Shiite. Indeed, they are not Muslims," he said.
Iraq's U.S.-appointed interior minister went on a coalition broadcast inside the country on Tuesday to denounce al-Sadr as "a common criminal and a disgrace to his country and his religion."
U.S. authorities have been reluctant to move against al-Sadr for several reasons, including uncertainty about how much of a threat the young cleric and his followers pose.
"It's not clear for whom al-Sadr purports to be speaking, and what kind of a following he may or may not have," Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said Tuesday.
Arresting al-Sadr could have the unwanted effect of increasing his popularity among those members of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority who are frustrated with the U.S.-led occupation, officials said. Any violence prompted by American action could be a setback for the Bush administration's efforts to portray the situation in Iraq as steadily improving.
U.S. officials want to act in a way that minimizes loss of life and prevents any unnecessary deterioration of the situation, another defense official said Wednesday. Yet they feel they must indicate no one is above the U.S.-administered law in Iraq, that second official said.
Al-Sadr appears to draw his followers mainly from young and poverty-stricken Shiites in places like Sadr City (search), a slum-ridden section of Baghdad named after the cleric's father, who was shot to death during Saddam's rule.
Pentagon officials said they also are unsure how many men belong to al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army (search), and how well armed the group is.
The 30-year-old cleric exhorts his followers with fiery anti-American sermons but has so far stopped short of calling for violence against U.S. military forces. His militia openly defies the U.S.-led administration's bans on private armies and people carrying unlicensed guns.
A gunbattle in Sadr City last week between the cleric's followers and U.S. troops left two American soldiers and at least one Iraqi attacker dead. The shootout came just hours after a suicide car bombing at a Sadr City police station killed the bomber and nine others.
Members of al-Sadr's militia also fought a gunbattle in Karbala early Tuesday morning. Witnesses said several people were killed or wounded in exchanges of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades between al-Sadr's forces and followers of Shiite leaders who are less critical of the U.S. presence in Iraq.