An Iraqi judge has issued a warrant for the arrest of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in connection with the murder last year of a rival Shi'ite cleric. The cleric's supporters have been staging violent protests in Shi'ite areas of Iraq during the past several days, resulting in dozens of deaths.
Coalition spokesmen Dan Senor says Mr. al-Sadr is among 12 people who are wanted for suspected involvement in the murder of Shi'ite cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was stabbed to death at a Shi'ite shrine in Najaf last April. He said the arrest warrant for Mr. al-Sadr was issued several months ago, and said the timing of the announcement is just a coincidence. But he reiterated that violence will not be tolerated in Iraq, "The debate in Iraq today is not between any two ethnic groups or any two regions. It is between moderates and extremists, and there is no room for extremists in Iraq."
Earlier in the day, U.S. helicopters near Baghdad fired on armed Shi'ite militiamen who were urged by the radical cleric to terrorize their enemy. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said Mr. al-Sadr's militia, known as the Mehdi Army, poses a danger to security in Iraq.
"The actions of the Mehdi army over the past 48 hours are clearly inconsistent with a safe and secure environment and clearly inconsistent with the security of the people of Iraq and we will take action as and when necessary to create a safe and secure environment in Iraq," the General said.
Supporters of the radical cleric began protesting last week over the U.S. decision to close a newspaper headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Coalition officials said the newspaper was inciting its readers to violence.
Many Shi'ites were also angry over the arrest of a top aide to Mr. al-Sadr, and demanded his release.
The protests turned deadly Sunday, after armed Shi'ite demonstrators clashed with coalition troops, resulting in dozens of deaths.
General Kimmit said coalition forces are prepared to take serious action against those who resort to extreme measures, "Individuals who create violence, who incite violence, who execute violence against persons inside Iraq, will be hunted down and captured or killed."
In the wake of the recent clashes between coalition forces and Sunni and Shi'ite groups, some analysts have begun to cast doubt on whether the U.S.-led coalition will be able to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis by June 30, as planned.
Mr. Senor said the resistance is coming from three specific sources, and said the United States will not be swayed from its planned hand-over date.
"There are clearly foreign terrorists and former Baathists and other extremists inside Iraq who are trying to derail the process to June 30 when we hand over sovereignty," said Mr. Senor. "As General Kimmitt has said we absolutely will not tolerate that, and the Iraqi people will not tolerate that."
Mr. al-Sadr is the 30-year-old son of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, a popular Shi'ite religious leader who defied the Saddam Hussein regime and was killed in 1999 by Baathist agents.
According to news reports, Mr. al-Sadr is surrounded by supporters inside a mosque in the Shi'ite city of Kufa. General Kimmitt said the cleric will be treated with respect if he surrenders. But aids to the cleric have pledged to protect their spiritual leader.