updated 2/24/2007 8:15:06 AM ET 2007-02-24T13:15:06

Thousands of Shiites rallied in the holy city of Najaf Saturday to protest the nearly 12 hour detention of the eldest son of Iraq’s most influential Shiite politician as he crossed back from Iran. The U.S. military called the incident “unfortunate.”

Amar al-Hakim, 35, was taken into custody Friday at the Zirbatyah crossing point southeast of Baghdad along with his security guards, said his father’s secretary, Jamal al-Sagheer. Al-Hakim was freed about 12 hours later, but his bodyguards remained in custody, al-Sagheer said.

The convoy was using the same route Washington believes is used to keep powerful Shiite militias flush with weapons and aid.

The U.S. military said Saturday that the vehicles were initially stopped because they “met specific criteria for further investigation in an area where smuggling activity has taken place in the past.”

Al-Hakim was detained after members of the convoy “did not cooperate with coalition forces and displayed suspicious activities,” but he was released to Iraqi authorities and his possessions were returned after further investigation, the military said.

“Mr. Hakim was treated with dignity and respect throughout the incident,” the military said. “Unfortunate incidents such as this occasionally occur as Iraq endeavors to secure its borders.”

Risk of backlash
Even though Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued a rapid apology, the decision to hold Amar al-Hakim on Friday risks touching off a backlash from Shiite leaders at a time when their cooperation is needed most to keep a major security sweep through Baghdad from unraveling.

It also highlights the often knotty relationship between U.S. military authorities and Iraq’s elected leaders, whose ties to neighboring patrons — Syria backing Sunnis, and Iran acting as big brother to the majority Shiites — add fuel to sectarian rivalries and bring recriminations from Washington about alleged arms smuggling and outside interference.

Shiite reaction to the detention was quick and sharp, with some officials suggesting it was a veiled warning about the limits of ties to Iran.

About 8,000 people demonstrated near the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, against the detention, raising Iraqi flags and pictures of al-Hakim and his father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Banners warned that such acts jeopardized the political process.

“The detention of al-Hakim represents an insult to the Iraqi people,” said Hassan al-Shebli, a 45-year-old store owner who was among the protesters. “The Americans should avoid such irresponsible acts if they want to establish stability in the country.”

Warning to the Americans
Hundreds also took to the streets in Baghdad’s main Shiite district of Sadr City and the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Basra to protest the detention and call for an investigation.

But the protests were relatively small considering the influence of the al-Hakim family, indicating they were mainly aimed at sending a warning to the Americans.

“What happened is unacceptable,” Shiite lawmaker Hamid Majid Moussa told Al-Forat television. “The Iraqi government and the American forces must put an end to such transgressions.”

The station is just one part of the multilayered clout of the al-Hakim family.

Al-Hakim’s father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, met with President Bush at the White House in December. He is the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, the country’s largest political force.

The bloc carries the strongest voice in the 275-seat parliament and holds critical sway over the fate of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It also maintains close ties to Iran, which hosted the elder al-Hakim and other SCIRI officials before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Although the reason for the detention was not immediately clear, suspicion fell on Washington’s accusations about suspected Iranian weapons or money pipelines to major Shiite groups, including SCIRI and sometimes-rival the Mahdi Army militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Both Washington and Iraqi leaders have vowed that no one would be exempt as the major security operation is under way in Baghdad.

“Washington doesn’t want to start a war with Iran, but instead is trying to set some boundaries,” said Andrew Exum, a regional affairs analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This (al-Hakim) situation may not be true saber rattling, but a kind of saber rattling to try to contain Iranian influence.”

In December, American forces seized two Iranian security agents at the elder al-Hakim’s compound in Baghdad. Six other Iranians were arrested Jan. 11 at an Iranian liaison office in northern Iraq. The U.S. military said they were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard. Tehran denies the charges.

Washington has repeatedly accused Iran of funneling weapons to militants, including lethal roadside bombs that have targeted U.S. troops.

U.S. ambassador apologizes
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq tried to defuse any showdowns with Shiites that could upset a 10-day-old offensive seeking to reclaim Baghdad’s streets from militants and sectarian deaths squads. Shiite militias appeared to clear the way for the effort by rolling back fighters and checkpoints.

“I am sorry about the arrest,” Khalilzad said. “We don’t know the circumstances of the arrest and we are investigating and we don’t mean any disrespect to Al-Sayed Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim or his family.”

Khalilzad promised: “We will find out what has happened.”

The New York Times quoted advisers to al-Hakim as saying American forces had beaten several of the guards after stopping the convoy. The Times also quoted an unidentified U.S. military official as saying al-Hakim was detained because he had an expired passport and was traveling with people who had a large number of guns.

But in an interview after his release at the provincial governor’s office in Kut, al-Hakim displayed a passport with an expiration date of Sept. 17, 2007, the Times reported on its Web site Friday.

“They arrested me and my guards in an unsuitable way, and they bound my hands and blindfolded me,” the Times quoted Amar al-Hakim as saying. “They took our phones, bags, money, documents and the guards weapons, and sent us to an American base.”

The U.S. Embassy said al-Hakim “was not singled out” and “soldiers were following standard procedure” at the border crossing.

“There were some serious allegations made here about the way that the arrest was conducted and the investigation is going to examine how the event unfolded,” embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said Saturday.

Amar al-Hakim heads a charity dedicated to the memory of his uncle, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed along with scores of others in a car bombing in Najaf in August 2003. His father took over SCIRI after the killings, and Amar is apparently being groomed to take his place someday.

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