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Iraq government orders Karbala probe

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered an investigation Sunday into last week’s deadly clashes surrounding a Shiite religious celebration in Karbala, promising that it would be conducted without bias.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered an investigation Sunday into last week’s deadly clashes surrounding a Shiite religious celebration in Karbala, promising that it would be conducted without bias.

The announcement came only hours after anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for the government to investigate the violence, which many have blamed on his Mahdi Army militia.

The firebrand cleric’s followers threatened to take unspecified measures if the government refused the demand, and criticized recent raids against the Mahdi Army by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

A statement from al-Maliki’s office said an investigative committee was being formed to look into the Karbala bloodshed, which saw more than 50 people killed and hundreds injured.

It did not detail the makeup of the committee, but said that it would perform its duties “neutrally and professionally without being biased to any side.”

No specific time frame for the investigation was given, but the statement said it would be concluded “as soon as possible.”

Al-Sadr, who has denied that the Mahdi Army provoked the confrontation, announced a surprise six-month suspension of the militia’s activities last Wednesday following the fighting in Karbala in an apparent bid to deflect criticism. On Sunday, he threatened to take matters into his own hands if the government didn’t open an investigation.

‘Fair, neutral and quick investigation’
“After the procrastination we had seen in the past two days, we warn the Iraqi government and the executive authorities in Karbala if they don’t open a fair, neutral and quick investigation, the Sadr office will be obliged to take unspecified measures,” spokesman Sheik Salah al-Obeidi said at a news conference in Najaf. He refused to elaborate on what the measures may be.

Though the Iraqi government and U.S. commanders have praised al-Sadr’s move to stand down his militia, security forces have been keeping the Mahdi Army under pressure, saying they are focusing on breakaway factions believed to be receiving weapons, training and money from Iran — a charge that Iranians deny.

Before dawn on Sunday, police in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, said they arrested six suspects in coordinated raids on several houses believed to be used by Mahdi Army militiamen responsible for recent violence in the area.

The U.S. military conducted several other raids in Baghdad on Saturday that targeted Mahdi Army factions, arresting 11 suspects.

Al-Obeidi slammed the U.S. for conducting the raids on al-Sadr followers, calling them “oppressive” measures.

A statement from Sadr’s office said that more than 200 al-Sadr followers have been detained in the past three days in Karbala province, making Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s praise of the decision to freeze the Mahdi Army nothing more than “ink on paper.”

Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Raid Shaker, commander of Karbala police, said that 10 policemen were killed and 20 were wounded in last week’s Karbala clashes. He added that 300 detainees were being questioned over the Karbala incident.

Jawad al-Hasnawi, a Sadrist member of Karbala’s provincial council, said the prime minister had promised to stop detaining people in connection with the incident but “despite the promises ... detentions are still going on.”

He said more people were arrested Sunday morning. “They have taken us back to the era of the former dictatorship,” al-Hasnawi said.

In a late interview Saturday night, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said that during recent talks with the Iranians in Baghdad, the U.S. and Iraqi sides had demanded an end to Tehran’s alleged support for the militias.

‘Fanatical militias’
“We want an end to Iranian support to some fanatical militias that are fighting coalition and Iraqi forces. We also want an end to the shelling of the Green Zone, we want an end to training those militias. This is what we and the Iraqi government want and until now there has been no positive response on the ground,” he said in the interview on state television, speaking in Arabic.

He added that it was “important for everyone to understand” that the U.S. was trying to solve its differences with Iran and its ally Syria through political and diplomatic means.

“I returned to Iraq at the beginning of this year because I was optimistic about the future of Iraq. Six months later, I am still optimistic because you have made tangible progress toward a democratic Iraq,” he added.

Crocker, who is due to report mid-month to Congress on the situation in Iraq with Gen. David Petraeus, said he did not anticipate any major changes to American policy.

“Since 2003, there has been a stable policy by the American administration and I don’t think there will be a fundamental or quick change in the American policy or stand on Iraq,” he said.

He said the ongoing security operation in Baghdad has brought tangible improvements in public safety but added there was a “need for common resolutions by everybody -- Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.”