Two Muslim clerics who encouraged protests in Iraq's Kurdish region have been charged with inciting violence during anti-government demonstrations, police said Monday. The arrests are a sign that the semiautonomous government in one of the nation's most peaceful areas is taking a hardline approach against demonstrators clamoring for reforms and an end to corruption.
A security official said one of the clerics, Mulla Mohammed Nasrallah, was charged simply for leading prayers in a public square and urging continued protests the day after deadly clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators in February. The security official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to brief the media.
Qadir Hama, spokesman for the Asayish, the security force in the Kurdish region in Iraq's north, declined to comment on Nasrallah's case. He said the other cleric, Kamran Ali, was arrested Thursday for a March prayer in which he allegedly called the protests a kind of jihad, or holy war.
Nasrallah was arrested Sunday in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.
"He did nothing wrong," said his wife, Fatima Mahmoud. "He was calling upon the protesters to resort to peaceful means to achieve their goals. And he demanded the Kurdish government not to use violence against the protesters and listen to their demands."
Nasrallah led prayers in Sulaimaniyah's Azadi Square on Feb. 18, the day after security forces opened fire on protesters, killing two and wounding 47. The security official said his calls then to continue the demonstrations amounted to inciting violence.
Protests in the region have occurred almost daily since then and have drawn thousands of protesters, making them among the largest held across Iraq over the recent weeks of political upheaval sweeping much of the Arab world. And in a surprising turn for this usually sleepy region, they have been violent; seven more people have been killed since the Feb. 17 protests.
Protesters have thrown rocks at security forces, who responded by beating people in the crowd, including journalists. More than 100 people have been arrested or detained.
Kurds generally enjoy a higher standard of living than the rest of Iraq, but many are tired of the tight grip with which the ruling parties control the region and the economy. Encouraged by uprisings across the Mideast, protesters are demanding political reforms and an end to government corruption.
The mostly independent, oil-rich Kurdish region, which borders Iran, Turkey and a slice of Syria, is run by a government that shares oil revenues with Iraq's central government in Baghdad _ a constant source of tension.
Kurdish political analyst Shwan Mohammed said the clerics' arrests could cause a backlash and bring even more violence. Instead of solutions, he said, the Kurdish government "comes up with more crackdowns and arrests."
"Now they are launching baseless accusations against the opponents," Mohammed said. "I think this futile method adopted by the Kurdistan government will result into violence and riots by desperate protesters."
Though Iraq has escaped the groundswell of huge protests that have roiled much of the Middle East, the nation is still beset with deadly violence daily.
Police and hospital officials in Baghdad said roadside bombs hit motorcades carrying the director of Iraq's investment board and an Industry Ministry director in separate attacks as they headed to work Monday. One person was killed and nine were wounded, including Investment Board director general Rashid Mihsin.
Also, the U.S. military announced that an American soldier died Sunday in a noncombat incident in northern Iraq. The statement Monday gave no details and withheld the soldier's name pending notification of next of kin. The death raises to at least 4,444 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Meanwhile, Iraq handed over the remains of 17 Iranian soldiers killed in the grinding war between the two countries throughout the 1980s in a sign of their improving ties since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The International Committee of the Red Cross supervised the handover through a border crossing near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, agency spokesman Mohammed Salman said.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes in Baghdad and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.