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Mehdi army leader in Basra killed

A file photo of British soldiers patrolling a road in Basra, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad, February 21, 2007. REUTERS/Wisam Ahmed

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi special forces killed the leader of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Friday after he tried to resist arrest, the British military said.

Spokesman Major David Gell said Abu Qader and at least one aide were shot shortly after leaving Sadr’s offices in the centre of the city, the hub of Iraq’s main oilfields. He said the operation was authorised by the Iraqi government.

The killing came on a day when Sadr made his first public appearance in months, portraying himself as a nationalist leader committed to the political process. He called on his militia to stop attacks on Iraqi security forces.

A senior member of Sadr’s political movement said their response to the killing would be limited to “political resistance”. Gell said British forces were braced for any violent backlash.

He described Abu Qader as the leader of the Mehdi Army in Basra and said he was suspected of involvement in planting roadside bombs, weapons trafficking, assassinations and planning and participating in attacks against British troops.

He said the operation had been Iraqi-led with British troops acting as advisers.

“During the arrest operation the targeted individual was killed ... after he resisted arrest,” he said.

The senior member in Sadr’s movement blamed British troops for Abu Qader’s death. He said the militant leader had just left Friday prayers when British forces ambushed and killed him with two other Mehdi Army members.

British troops have stepped up operations against Shi’ite militias in the city in recent weeks as they prepare to hand it over to Iraqi security forces. April was the deadliest month for British troops there since the first month of the Iraq war.