NAJAF, (Reuters) – Hundreds of supporters of Iraq’s anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gathered on Friday to bury a Sadrist lawmaker, assassinated a day earlier in a bomb attack.
In the Baghdad district of Sadr City men cried and shouted slogans as they carried and walked alongside Saleh al-Ugaili’s coffin, draped in the Iraqi flag, before it was taken to a cemetery in the holy southern Shi’ite city of Najaf. “God is the greatest, America is the enemy of God,” chanted mourners in Najaf after Friday prayers.
Ugaili died on Thursday when a blast struck his car in the Habibiya district of eastern Baghdad. It was not clear who was behind the attack, but some mourners blamed the United States.
Sadrists are vehemently opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq. “We condemn this attack and face our accusations towards the occupying forces. We consider it the side that gains from this and the one side that has aims and interests in targeting Sadrists,” Sadrist member of parliament Naseer al-Isawi said.
Top U.S. officials have condemned Ugaili’s killing.
Gunmen clashed with U.S. and Iraqi forces overnight in Sadr’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City. The U.S. military said there had been one American casualty, giving no further details.
Another lawmaker from the Sadrist bloc, which has 30 seats in the 275-seat parliament, said the killing could be linked to the upcoming provincial elections, due in January.
The polls are expected to see a struggle for power between rival Shi’ite factions in Iraq’s oil-rich south. “The killing could have two reasons. It could be an internal conflict in the Sadrist movement … or a fight between Shi’ite powers for control of the street before the polls,” said a political science professor at Baghdad University who declined to be named for security reasons.
Major-General Michael Oates, a U.S. commander in southern Iraq, on Thursday said U.S. forces feared a wave of assassinations before the polls.
U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are in the final stages of negotiating a security pact that will govern the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq once a U.N. mandate expires this year.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — speaking in Najaf after meeting Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — said Washington’s request that its troops be immune from Iraqi law was still an issue that needed to be resolved.
It would be difficult to finalise the pact without the blessing of Sistani, who wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.
Sadr’s military wing, the Mehdi Army, has launched several uprisings against U.S. forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and has fought rival Shi’ite factions, but in August Sadr extended a ceasefire indefinitely.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Maliki, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. military commander General Ray Odierno all condemned Ugaili’s killing. The Interior Ministry said it had started an investigation.