A young girl looking at the rubble of a house that was destroyed in an air strike in Basra, Iraq on Friday. (Nabil al-Jurani/The Associated Press)

Gunmen kill aide and in-law of Iraqi cleric

BAGHDAD: A senior aide to the radical anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr was assassinated in Najaf as he returned home from Friday Prayer, raising the likelihood that tensions would climb still higher between Sadr's loyalists and the Iraqi government forces they have been battling.

The police declared a curfew in Najaf, the holiest Shiite city in Iraq, and deployed reinforcements on the streets, fearing a backlash after the murder of the aide, Riyadh al-Nuri.

Security officials there said Nuri, who was related to Sadr's family by marriage, was ambushed by unknown gunmen outside his house in the Najaf neighborhood of al-Adala after leaving prayers in the nearby town of Kufa.

Iraqi security forces carried out a major offensive in Basra last month, but it was widely criticized as poorly planned and the government failed in its attempt to disarm Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army founded by Sadr. In recent days, the two sides have been fighting heavily in Sadr's eastern Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City.

Within hours of Nuri's killing, Sadr's office in Najaf issued a statement laying blame at "the hands of the occupiers and their tails," meaning the United States and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government.

The statement added: "I promise before God and the Iraqi people that I will never forget this blot, and the occupier will never feel safe in our land, while I am alive." Nuri's sister is married to Sadr's brother, Sadrist officials said.

Still, a spokesman for Sadr, Salah al-Obeidi, urged the cleric's followers to be calm and "not to be dragged into others' plots," The Associated Press reported.

Shortly after the killing, a rocket, apparently fired at the Green Zone, struck the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad, the site of a coordinated suicide truck bombing in 2005 that killed at least six Iraqis and wounded more than 40.

The missile on Friday punched through a foot of concrete and destroyed a first-floor room on the hotel's east side. Hotel officials, guards and neighbors said no one was wounded in the attack, but local police officials later claimed that three people had been killed.

Maliki's office issued a statement condemning Nuri's killing and ordered an investigation. Maliki called on security forces to "be ready to resist anyone who tries to disturb the security situation in the holy city of Najaf."

Nuri's brother Ahmad Jassem al-Nuri said Friday that the assassination was carried out by gunmen using two cars and a motorcycle.

"It is a planned operation against the Sadr movement, and it is a message to Mr. Moktada," he said. "When they kill someone very close to him, that means they are after him."

Speaking by telephone in Najaf after traveling from his home in Baghdad, he said he did not know who had carried out the killing, but suspected the "enemies of the Sadr movement" in the Badr Organization. That group is the armed wing of Sadr's principal internal Shiite rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

The council is the largest Shiite coalition ally of Maliki's smaller Dawa Party and dominates the Iraqi government's security forces.

It has been engaged in a protracted and bloody Shiite-against-Shiite power struggle with Sadr's Mahdi Army in southern Iraq. Many believe that battle is coming to a head before provincial council elections scheduled for October, during which the Sadrists stand to win many seats from the incumbent parties, including the council.

Last summer, the Iraqi security forces battled Mahdi Army fighters for control of the holy shrines in Karbala, and governors from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in two southern provinces — Muthanna and Qadisiya — were assassinated in what appeared to be a struggle for control of the oil-rich region.

Najaf is the Iraqi seat of the Shiite religious establishment known as the Hawza, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and houses the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most revered figures in Shiite history.

A number of assassinations have occurred in Najaf in recent years. Those killed include Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Sadr's father, who was killed in 1999; Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem al-Khoei, in April 2003; and Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, a prominent Shiite leader and politician who was killed by a car bomb in August 2003.

Sadrist officials said memorial services would be held in al-Tusi Mosque in Najaf on Saturday, and in Baghdad, Syria and Iran.

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