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Al-Sadr calls for end to Shiite-on-Shiite violence

Radical cleric al-Sadr followers battle those of rival Shiite leader

From Kianne Sadeq
CNN

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Following bloody battles in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday called for an end to violence between his supporters and those loyal to a rival Shiite leader.

At least five people died and 10 others were wounded in fighting Wednesday between followers of al-Sadr and forces associated with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Dr. Mohammed Abbas al-Fetlawi, head of the Najaf health system, confirmed the casualties.

"I call upon all the believers to save the blood of the Muslims and to return to their homes," al-Sadr said at a news conference. He called on al-Hakim to do the same.

"I demand that brother Abdul Aziz al-Hakim make an official announcement condemning the aggression by his representatives and some extremists."

A short time later, a SCIRI spokesman also asked for an end to the violence, saying it did not benefit Iraq.

Al-Sadr and his backers are among a minority of Shiites who oppose an Iraqi constitution that would include a decentralized Iraqi government with autonomous regions -- or federalism. Sunni Arabs also oppose this plan.

Al-Hakim supports an autonomous region in the south for Shiite Arabs.

The violence prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in a televised address Wednesday, to call for calm, saying fighting should not occur between Iraqis, but against enemies of Iraq.

Al-Sadr praised al-Jaafari for his stance on the violence, as well as President Jalal Talabani, who condemned it.

Laith Kubba, adviser to Prime Minister al-Jaafari, said the tension between al-Sadr supporters and SCIRI "is rooted in local issues," such as the control of municipal councils.

Office opening sparks violence

Wednesday's violence followed the reopening of an al-Sadr office near the holy Shiite Imam Ali Mosque in the city of Najaf, south of the capital.

Al-Sadr's offices have been closed since last year's fighting between al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia and U.S. forces. Conditions in Najaf have been relatively peaceful after clashes were resolved by last year's agreement between al-Sadr and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that granted his freedom from charges in a murder case.

Al-Sadr was wanted by Iraqi authorities in connection with the killing of rival cleric Majeed Al-Khoei in April 2000.

A Ministry of Interior official said that Najaf's city council gave notices Wednesday to close all offices in the Old City around the mosque to make room for visitors.

Al-Sadr supporters said they wouldn't comply with the order to close the office, the official said.

Demonstrations and fighting then began between al-Sadr's followers and opponents to the establishment of the cleric's office, many who are SCIRI members, with allegiance to al-Hakim.

Sheikh Salah Obeidi, spokesman for al-Sadr, said demonstrators threw rocks at the office, stormed it and torched it. Among the wounded in the violence, Obeidi said, was a sheikh at the al-Sadr office -- Saheb al-Ameri.

'We are in the new Iraq'

Outrage about the incident spurred demonstrations by al-Sadr supporters in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Sadr City and Shaab -- where the cleric is popular.

Hassan Karim Muttar, leader of the Sadr City council, condemned the violence.

"We regret the attacks in Najaf," Muttar said. "These actions are against humanity and against all human rights."

"We are in the new Iraq and we are not supposed to be solving our conflicts with fighting and car bombs. This is not the way to be, we are supposed to be solving our issue in a civilized manner," Muttar said.

The Interior Ministry also reported violence involving al-Sadr's Mehdi Army in at least three other cities south of Baghdad -- Diwaniya, Babil and Amara. In Diwaniya and Babil, two SCIRI offices were burned to the ground.

No casualties were reported, although the clashes continued into the early hours of Thursday. The Interior Ministry official said police were cordoning off the Old City as demonstrations continued overnight.

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