WASHINGTON: Defence Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday he doubts that Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is battling US and Iraqi troops in Baghdad, would be subject to arrest by US forces.
Sadr is believed to be in Iran while elements of his militia in the Sadr City section of the capital fight Iraqi government troops supported by the US military.
Gates was asked at a Pentagon news conference about the prospect of Sadr being arrested. He initially responded in broad terms about the US view of competing political actors in Iraq.
"I think those who are prepared to work within the political process in Iraq, and peacefully, are not enemies of the US," Gates said.
When pressed about the prospect of arresting Sadr, he added, "I would be surprised along those lines: a move to arrest him. He is a significant political figure. We want him to work within the political process. He has a large following. It is important that he become a part of the process, if he is not already."
Gates said he was "on the same page" over a halt in the drawdown of US forces as Bush despite an apparent difference over how long it should last.
Bush said on Thursday that General Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, would have "all the time he needs" to recommend further cuts in US forces after the end of a troop surge in July. Bush said referring to it as "a pause" was misleading.
The president's remarks were widely seen as signalling that US force levels will remain at around 140,000 troops - more than before the start of the surge - through the end of the year, his last in office.
In the early morning Iraqi troops were fired upon when they tried to enter the northern Basra district of Hayaniya, a Mehdi Army stronghold, police said.
A US aircraft retaliated with an air strike that killed six people and wounded one, said a spokesman for US and British forces in southern Iraq.
US soldiers operating a drone plane over Sadr City, also fired a Hellfire missile late on Thursday at a group of men carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, killing six, the US military said.
Sadr City has been the focus of intense street battles over the past week that have killed close to 100 people. The slum is under a vehicle blockade, due to end today, that has led to food and medicine shortages.
A missile ripped a hole in the second floor of the landmark Palestine Hotel across the Tigris River from the Green Zone on Friday, killing three civilians outside the hotel, police said.
A suicide bomber killed three Iraqi policemen as he slammed his explosives-filled car into a police checkpoint near the western city of Ramadi, the local police chief said.
Major General Tareq al-Youssef, police chief of Ramadi, said five policemen were also wounded in the attack which struck north of the city in Anbar province at around 5pm.