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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: A SCENE OF NORMALITY; A MOVE
TO EASE TENSIONS

U.S. frees Shiite cleric's aide

The move is aimed at easing tensions with Muqtada Sadr's militia.

March 22, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military Wednesday released a senior member of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The decision, officials said, was made with the hope of easing tensions between Sadr's Al Mahdi militia and U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Sheik Ahmed Shibani, who had been in prison for 2 1/2 years, was handed over to the office of the Shiite prime minister.

"In consultation with the prime minister and following his request, coalition leaders determined that Sheik Shibani, who was detained since 2004, could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said in a statement.

The sheik, wearing a checkered black and white kaffiyeh, smiled with Maliki for a photo that was later distributed by the prime minister's office.

Sadr's militia had repeatedly demanded Shibani's release. The onetime spokesman for Sadr was jailed by U.S. forces in September 2004 in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf after a three-week battle between Al Mahdi militiamen and the Americans.

In 2006, an Iraqi court dismissed weapons possession charges against Shibani, but the U.S. military did not free him.

Relations have remained tense between the U.S. military and Sadr, especially after the Feb. 13 launch of the security crackdown in Baghdad. Al Mahdi members have chafed at the presence of U.S. soldiers in Sadr City, the large majority-Shiite slum in Baghdad that has served as the militia's home base.

Joint U.S. and Iraqi forces also have detained hundreds of Al Mahdi militiamen in an effort to stem sectarian violence by Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite death squads.

Although the Sadr forces largely have abided by the security plan, clashes erupted Monday between U.S. soldiers and gunmen in Hurriya, a Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad.

Shibani's release could be interpreted as a reward for Sadr's efforts to rein in his militia. Maliki, whose government depends on political support from Sadr and his backers, has watched his ties with the radical preacher fray as he has collaborated with the Americans on the new security plan.

Sadr followers, who hold 30 parliamentary seats and six ministries, castigated Washington for not freeing Shibani sooner.

"They were supposed to release Sheik Ahmed Shibani seven months ago after he was tried by an Iraqi court and he was found not guilty of the charges pressed against him. He was arrested for a political reason and he remained so for seven more months also for political reasons," lawmaker Salih Agaili said.

Parliament member and Sadr loyalist Baha Araji said U.S.-led forces raided his home Wednesday and confiscated a pistol, Kalashnikov rifle and computer equipment. Araji said that the raid was a provocation by the Americans but that Sadr's followers were sticking to their pledge to respect the Baghdad security plan.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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