Iraq Assassination Reignites Tensions

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Qassem Zein / AFP / Getty

Mourners carry the coffin of Riyadh al-Nouri, a senior aide to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, during a funeral in Najaf, Iraq.

Riyadh al-Nouri was several key things. He was the brother-in-law of Moqtada al-Sadr and a prominent official in the anti-American Shi'ite cleric's political organization. He was also, at one point in 2005, accused of spying for the Americans by members of his own party. And so, when he was shot and killed in the city of Kufa, reportedly by a gunman on a motorcycle, as he returned from Friday prayers, there were multiple suspects.

His powerful brother-in-law blamed the Americans. Some Sadrists believed rival Shi'ite militias may have been behind the killing; while others posit that it may have been an inside job from within the Sadr ranks. Only one thing is certain — the assassination has raised an outcry among Sadr's followers and threatened to push Iraq further into a relapse of sectarian violence, just as the Iraqi government prepared to lift its curfew on Sadr City, the battered Baghdad slum which is Sadr's stronghold.

Followers of the cleric and members of his thousands-strong militia, the Mahdi Army — which has been engaged in heavy fighting with Iraqi and U.S. forces in recent weeks — expressed outrage on Friday afternoon, as news spread of Nouri's death. The province of Najaf, where Nouri was killed, has seen a rise in intra-Shi'ite violence in the past year, mostly in the form of tit-for-tat killings between Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite militias, including the rival Badr Brigade, which has links to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party.

Some Sadrists suspect the Badr Brigade, which dominates Iraqi security forces throughout much of southern Iraq, is behind this latest assassination. Still, on Friday, rumors circulated among some Sadrists in Najaf that the assassination may have come from within their own faction. Moqtada al-Sadr, however, publicly blamed the United States for Nouri's death. "The occupier wants to cause sedition," said Sheikh Abdel Hadi al-Mohammedawi, an official at the Sadr office in the southern city of Karbala, speaking on behalf of Sadr. But Mohammedawi, also said that Sadr is urging his followers to stay calm for now and not to raise their weapons.

The Iraqi government moved to pre-empt a violent outcry after the killing by imposing an immediate curfew across the province of Najaf until further notice. Wire services reported Najaf police had also shut down shops and ushered people off the streets. Dawa party member, Haider Al-Ebadi, in Baghdad, told TIME that he knew nothing about the incident, and declined to comment on the possibility for further unrest. "I know nothing about this accident, but we are very sorry about it," he said.

Whether the killing will, in fact, lead to more Shi'ite v. Shi'ite fighting in Najaf remains to be seen. Major Alayne Conway, a spokeswoman for the central division of the Multinational Forces, which operates in the Najaf area, told TIME: "I can tell you that one of our Military Transition Teams operating in Najaf was sent out to get an update on the situation and I know the Government of Najaf called us confirming that Riyadh al-Nouri was killed." But Conway was not aware of any violent reaction so far.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, tension continues to boil in the vast Shi'ite slum of Sadr City. The neighborhood was to have remained locked down until Saturday, when the government was set to lift a curfew that has been in place since fighting broke out between government forces and the Mahdi Army at the end of last month. Residents of the beleaguered neighborhood — where American forces are assisting the Iraqi military in daily operations — say the situation remains bleak, and most are subsisting without water or electricity. "It was quieter today, but the streets are empty. We heard some bombing from American planes in another area," Sadr City resident, Eman Hamid, told TIME. "The Americans are moving from building to building. They are on the roofs of the buildings in Gayara neighborhood, in 83rd Square, and at Zahawi Hospital. There was no battle today involving the Mahdi Army, but the Americans are shooting at citizens randomly — at anyone who goes out in the street."

She said Friday was the twelfth day Sadr City, home to millions of Baghdad's poor, came under U.S. air strikes. Friday morning, the fortified Green Zone compound, which houses the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government offices, was still coming under mortar fire, believed to have been launched by Mahdi Army fighters in Sadr City.