Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it is unlikely radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr would be subject to arrest by U.S. forces if he returns to Iraq. In related developments, unidentified gunmen have shot and killed a senior aide to al-Sadr in the southern holy city of Najaf. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.
Secretary Gates was asked at a Pentagon news conference if he considers Moqtada al-Sadr to be an enemy of the United States. Gates said those who are prepared to work within the political process in Iraq are not enemies of the United States. When asked about the prospects of arresting Sadr if he returns to Iraq, Gates said he would be surprised if that happened.
"He is a significant political figure. And clearly if he is willing to work within ... we want him to work within the political process in Iraq. He has a large following," he said.
Secretary Gates said it is important that the cleric become a part of the political process if he is not already.
Sadr is believed to be in Iran, while elements of his Mahdi Army continue to fight Iraqi government troops supported by U.S. forces. He has not been since in public since May of last year.
Also at the news conference, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, said Sadr is clearly a key player in Iraq, but his impact in the long term remains to be determined. "To me, Moqtada al-Sadr is somewhat of an enigma and it's pretty difficult to figure out exactly across all of the things that he is involved in where he is headed or what his plans are," he said.
Mullen said the ceasefire that Sadr ordered months ago has had a positive effect on reducing violence, but he has also shown he can have the opposite impact, such as during recent fighting in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
In related developments, Iraqi officials say unidentified gunmen shot and killed a senior aide to al-Sadr in Najaf Friday. The officials say Riyadh al-Nouri was driving home from Friday prayers when he was shot. Authorities in Najaf have imposed a curfew. Sadr's spokesman in Najaf (Salah al-Obeidi) says the cleric has called on his supporters to remain calm. The aide also quoted Sadr as blaming the killing on what he called "occupying forces" and those working with them.
The killing threatens to raise tensions between Sadr and the Iraqi government.
Two weeks ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive against militias in Basra. Deadly clashes broke out there between Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias loyal to Sadr. The fighting spread to Baghdad. Sadr has threatened to lift his ceasefire if Iraq's government does not stop its attacks on his Mahdi Army or set a timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq.