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Originally published Saturday, April 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Al-Sadr followers vow to avenge killing of top aide

Followers of the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chanted anti-American slogans and vowed revenge for the assassination Friday of al-Sadr's...

McClatchy Newspapers

NAJAF, Iraq — Followers of the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chanted anti-American slogans and vowed revenge for the assassination Friday of al-Sadr's top aide in Najaf, where outrage over the killing threatens to spiral into the second deadly uprising in southern Iraq in a month.

Riyadh al Nouri, 41, who ran the main al-Sadr office in Najaf and was known as a relative moderate within the movement, was gunned down as he returned home from prayers Friday afternoon, according to Iraqi authorities and the al-Sadr camp. No group has claimed responsibility for the slaying, which amounted to a highly provocative strike at al-Sadr's inner circle. Nouri was al-Sadr's brother-in-law.

"Long live Sadr! Muqtada is the bridge to heaven!" mourners chanted at Najaf's sprawling cemetery. Other slogans cursed the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The timing of the killing — not even two weeks after more than 120 people died and at least 300 were wounded in fighting between al-Sadr's militiamen and government forces in the port city of Basra — raises the specter of a wider rebellion that could spread to al-Sadr's strongholds in Baghdad.

That scenario would only further tax the outgunned Iraqi security forces and could undo the gains of the U.S. military's widely touted troop-buildup strategy.

Al-Sadr, who is believed to be studying theology in neighboring Iran, issued a statement blaming the United States and the Iraqi government for his aide's assassination, describing his enemies as acting "traitorously and aggressively against our dear martyr." Al-Sadr also demanded a swift investigation from the authorities and calm from his furious supporters.

"We will not forget this precious blood. I call upon Sadr followers to be patient. The occupiers will not rest in our land as long as I am alive," al-Sadr's statement said.

Al-Maliki quickly condemned the killing and said gangs were behind the attack.

Nouri was married to one of al-Sadr's sisters, and one of Nouri's sisters is married to al-Sadr's brother Mustafa, according to the Najaf office.

Despite their close relationship, Nouri had at times challenged his militant brother-in-law and was well known for his stance against spilling the blood of Iraqi security forces and rival Shiites, as well as his opposition to the al-Sadr movement's decision last year to step down from posts in al-Maliki's administration.

Nouri was also al-Sadr's hand-picked chief negotiator with the Iraqi government, said Abdulhadi al Mohammedawi, director of the al-Sadr office in nearby Karbala.

Nouri also had his detractors, who recall his arrest by U.S. troops in May 2004 in connection with the brutal killing a year earlier of another Shiite cleric, Sheik Abdul Majid al Khoei, just after the American-led invasion of Iraq. Nouri and a co-defendant were released in 2005 under an agreement to end an early Sadrist uprising that left thousands of Iraqis dead.

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The Khoei killing resurfaced Friday as a possible motive in the assassination of Nouri. With no suspects in police custody by late evening, Najaf residents debated whether the killing was a covert U.S. operation to dismantle the al-Sadr network, or was undertaken by rival Shiite Muslim parties locked in a power struggle with al-Sadr, or was committed by Sunni extremists, members of the former regime or other tribal, religious and political enemies.

Tension between al-Sadr and other Shiite parties exploded into violence last month when al-Maliki launched an ill-planned offensive against Shiite militias and gangs in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

The offensive faltered after al-Sadr's militia launched attacks throughout the south and in Baghdad, where militants showered the U.S.-controlled Green Zone with rockets and mortars, killing four Americans.

Clashes have continued in Baghdad and Basra, despite al-Sadr's order March 30 for his militiamen to stand down under a deal brokered in Iran.

American and Iraqi officials insist the Basra crackdown was not aimed at al-Sadr's political movement but at criminals and Iranian-backed splinter groups. But Sadrists believed their Shiite rivals in government were trying to weaken their movement before provincial elections this fall.

One of those rival parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, controls the security services in Najaf. Sadrist officials said al-Nouri was slain about 300 yards from a security checkpoint but that it took police about 10 minutes to respond to the sounds of gunfire.

Nouri's death heightens the tensions engulfing the southern Shiite heartland. On Friday, residents mostly ignored the curfew that the government imposed after the assassination. Motorists drove right through checkpoints, and thousands of mourners marched to fulfill al-Sadr's call for a fitting burial for his comrade.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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