| Iraqi children wave to a US soldier in Mosul on Monday. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 5 (Reuters): US authorities in Iraq announced today that a murder warrant was out for a radical Shia cleric leading violent anti-American protests, but his followers swore to fight back if he was arrested.
Dan Senor, a senior spokesperson for the US-led authorities in Iraq, said an Iraqi judge had issued an arrest warrant for Moqtada al-Sadr several months ago in connection with the killing of another Shia cleric last year.
Sadr, surrounded by armed followers, is staging a sit-in at a mosque in Kufa, south of Baghdad. Asked when he would be arrested, Senor said: “There will be no advance warning.”
The announcement was likely to stir fresh fury among Sadr’s thousands of supporters who have shown their opposition to America’s post-war plans for Iraq in armed demonstrations over the past few days.
“There’s no way Sayyid Moqtada will turn himself in,” said a Sadr supporter outside the group’s office in the Baghdad slum district of Sadr City. “If the Americans try to arrest him, we will all explode,” said the man, who gave his name as Haider.
US forces have long struggled to quell Sunni insurgents since the war that toppled Saddam Hussein nearly a year ago, but are now facing a chaotic surge of Shia unrest.
Sadr supporters had lit fires around the office in an attempt to create a smokescreen against US helicopters prowling the skies. About six US tanks were deployed nearby.
A US helicopter earlier machinegunned targets in the capital’s mainly Shia district of Shuala. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the US army in Iraq, said the helicopter was responding to small-arms fire.
US forces also tackled Sunni Muslim insurgents in Falluja, where four American security men were killed last week. Residents reported heavy firing overnight and a hospital doctor said five people had been killed and three wounded.
Troops enforced a night-time curfew and sealed roads around the troubled town west of Baghdad. Schools closed and the streets were empty. The US military said it had also shut the nearby Baghdad-Amman highway indefinitely.
The violence complicates the task of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who arrived in Baghdad yesterday to discuss US plans for an end-June power handover to Iraqis and future elections.
President George W. Bush said today he would stick to a June 30 deadline for handing power to Iraqis: “We’ve got to stay the course and we will stay the course,” he told reporters.
The warrant links Sadr to the murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, hacked to death at a Najaf mosque last April by a mob. Sadr’s group has denied involvement in the killing.
Iraq’s US administrator Paul Bremer termed Sadr an outlaw today, a day after battles in Baghdad and near Najaf killed 48 Iraqis, eight American soldiers and one Salvadoran soldier. Bremer, who according to US Senate aides has cancelled a trip to Washington this week, said Sadr was trying to usurp legitimate authority.
Saudi security forces killed a wanted Islamic militant and wounded another in a shootout in the capital Riyadh today, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite television reported. There was no immediate confirmation from officials.