(AP) Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia has kidnapped 18 Iraqi police officers in hopes of using them as leverage to force authorities to free detained militants, police said Tuesday. The recent kidnappings took place as al-Sadr aides accused authorities of trying to arrest top officials from the cleric’s Mahdi Army. The new tensions appear to threaten a fragile cease-fire between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi authorities.
Al-Sadr’s followers fought a two-month rebellion against U.S. forces in April that died down after a series of truces. But on Monday, U.S. Marines clashed with al-Sadr militiamen near the cleric’s house, and a woman and three other bystanders were killed.
Mahdi Army militiamen have seized 18 police officers and two police cars in recent days, hoping to get some of their comrades out of prison, according to a Najaf police official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Najaf’s governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, confirmed a number of policemen were abducted.
Najaf police were awaiting orders from local officials, who did not want to escalate the situation, the official said.
Ahmed al-Shaibany, an al-Sadr spokesman, denied any policemen were locked in al-Sadr’s office or any of his quarters.
He accused Iraqi police of provocations, saying they had conducted several raids against the Mahdi Army that he said “threaten peace and stability in this holy city.”
Police tried to arrest a senior al-Sadr follower at a university in the southern city of Kufa on Friday but were shooed away by the university’s dean. Several other raids and arrests took place in Najaf, al-Shaibany added. He did not say how many people were arrested.
The Najaf police official said Iraqi police had nothing to do with the confrontation between militiamen and the Marines outside al-Sadr’s house Monday.
Al-Sadr was in his house at the time, witnesses said. Witnesses said the fighting began when U.S. military vehicles entered the area near al-Sadr’s house.
The U.S. military did not confirm a battle outside al-Sadr’s house, saying only that Marines were attacked with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars while patrolling Najaf. The Marines returned fire, killing two insurgents, the military said.