NAJAF, Iraq - U.S. forces raided the headquarters of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the heart of the holy city of Najaf on Tuesday and arrested his top advisers in the strongest blow yet to al-Sadr's nationwide insurgency.
The pre-dawn raid drew an angry rebuke from the country's top Shiite cleric, whose support is vital to maintaining calm among the country's Shiite majority.
"We've informed the Iraqi government of our rejection and our condemnation of American forces for entering the holy city of Najaf and approaching the holy shrine," said a statement released by the staff of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani in Najaf. "We believe there was no justification for such a military measure and hold the interim Iraqi government responsible for what happened."
U.S. military and Iraqi officials declined to comment.
Al-Sadr remained in hiding Tuesday, as did his remaining advisers. He has kept a low profile since his gunmen vacated the city and its holy shrine last month under an agreement brokered by Sistani.
Residents said that dozens of troops supported by helicopters stormed the office in which al-Sadr's advisers were holed up less than 200 feet from the Grand Imam Ali Shrine. Arrested were Sheik Ahmed al-Sheybani, the most visible among al-Sadr's inner circle, and his main Friday prayers leader and another key adviser, Hossam al-Husseini.
The clerics, along with several guards, were taken away to an undisclosed location. Witnesses said that Iraqi police later hauled away about 40 Kalashnikov assault rifles from the office.
The raid was the third in five days on al-Sadr's deputies and offices. In response to an arrest of a Sadr spokesman Saturday in Baghdad, an Islamist group seized 18 Iraqi national guardsmen and threatened to execute them. Al-Sadr intervened, and the guardsmen were released Monday.
Many Iraqis believe the raids on al-Sadr's associates are part of the U.S. campaign to prevent guerrillas from scuttling Iraqi elections early next year.
But like the continuing air assaults against the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah to the north, the attack on al-Sadr is likely to breed more resentment and violence against U.S. forces and the Iraqi interim government they support.
Even so, an organized backlash by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia would be more difficult now that its office in Najaf is closed and key advisers are in U.S. custody.
Throughout the day, Iraqi security forces blanketed the streets of Najaf and neighboring Kufa to prevent anticipated retaliation by gunmen loyal to the cleric. Non-residents were forbidden from entering the cities. Kalashnikov-wielding policemen demanded identification papers from anyone who lingered on the street in front of al-Sadr's empty Najaf office.
Pressure on al-Sadr and his advisers to clear out of Najaf has steadily intensified since the occupation and siege of the holy shrine, although Iraqi police steered clear of arresting any higher-ranking al-Sadr loyalists.
Like Sistani, many Najaf residents were unhappy with Tuesday's raid. They object to outsiders treading anywhere near the shrine without permission. They also resent Americans attacking the sanctuaries of any of the city's holy men, especially al-Sadr, whose late father was a revered religious leader.
"We're not happy with the closing of (al-Sadr's) office, even if we are happy if those people who entered and destroyed the city are removed," said one merchant, Abu Hassan Naim, 44, referring to Sadr's fighters.
The Americans can keep al-Sheybani, one of the clerics who were arrested, the merchant added. He accused al-Sheybani of circulating a letter two days ago with the names of 32 Najaf residents targeted for assassination because they had demonstrated this month against al-Sadr.
© 2004 Knight Ridder