Thousands of al-Sadr supporters mourn lawmaker

BAGHDAD (AP) - Thousands of supporters of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr marched through eastern Baghdad on Friday to mourn the killing of a Sadrist lawmaker and hear a statement from the anti-U.S. cleric blaming occupation and terrorism for the loss.

The crowd walked through the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City behind a car carrying the casket of politician Saleh al-Auqaeili. The body was then taken to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to be buried.

Al-Auqaeili was traveling in a convoy with other Shiite lawmakers on Thursday when a roadside bomb struck it in eastern Baghdad. He died later at a hospital.

As the Friday procession reached the al-Sadr movement’s local office, a statement from the cleric was read out mourning al-Auqaeili as a martyr. It called on the Iraqi government to investigate the killing.

"The hand of heinous occupation and terrorism assassinated another martyr of freedom," said the statement, read out by al-Sadr aide Jalil al-Sarkhi. It praised al-Auqaeili for dedicating himself to "get the occupier outside Iraq" and refusing to sign a long-term agreement with U.S.-led forces.

The Sadrists oppose negotiations for a security agreement that would extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this year, and some of the victims’ allies blamed U.S. and Iraqi forces for Thursday’s blast.

Suspicion also fell on Shiite splinter groups - some with suspected links to Iran, which has sheltered al-Sadr for nearly 18 months - raising fears of new internal Shiite bloodshed ahead of regional elections expected in January.

The convoy of al-Auqaeili, considered a moderate within al-Sadr’s movement, was about 200 yards (meters) from an Iraqi army checkpoint in mostly Shiite eastern Baghdad when the bombing occurred, a colleague said.

One commuter on a motorcycle was also killed in the blast, police said.

The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said it would form an investigative committee to examine the circumstances of the attack. It pledged to arrest al-Auqaeili’s killers and put them on trial, according to a statement late Thursday.

Al-Sadr’s followers have long opposed the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and some of them cited their opposition to a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that has been under negotiation for months as a motive for the assassination.

Sadrist spokesman Ahmed al-Massoudi said Thursday that "occupation forces sent us a message by staging this attack because of our stance against the agreement."

Later, however, the Sadrist political department called the killing a "terrorist act of criminal gangs," a phrase often used to describe renegade Shiite militants that the U.S. believes are trained and armed by Iran. Tehran denies links to Iraqi Shiite militants.

Maj. Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Baghdad command, said the attack appeared to have been carried out by "unaligned" Shiite groups.

Police said they had detained 14 people for questioning, including 12 members of a government-run security force that protects a power station near the blast site.

The attack reflects tension within the Shiite community following the splintering of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, which fought U.S. and Iraqi troops for weeks in Baghdad’s Sadr City district until a cease-fire last May.

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