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Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was engaged in a war of words on Friday with a splinter group from his movement

'Anyone who protects the corrupt who have been sentenced to death'

Radical Shiite cleric accuses League of the Righteous of seeking to tarnish his reputation, killing Iraqis in cold blood.

By Hassan Abdul Zahra - NAJAF

 that has claimed the kidnap of several British and US contractors in Iraq.

The public spat has seen Sadr accuse Asaib Ahel al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous which has emerged as more radical than his own movement, of seeking to tarnish his reputation, and the latter has refused to lay down its weapons.

Sadr's war of words with the group, made up of former followers, was sparked by a request from the League of the Righteous to bury two of its fighters in a cemetery reserved for Sadr loyalists in the southern city of Najaf on Tuesday.

When that request was denied, a firefight erupted, a Sadrist official said, although no casualties were reported in the shooting.

Shortly afterwards, each side published a statement slamming the other.

"The government must protect the cemetery from infiltrators," Sadr, who is currently in Iran studying Islamic theology, said in a statement published in Najaf.

He added, referring to the League of the Righteous: "Anyone who protects the corrupt who have been sentenced to death, who have killed Iraqis, I am not linked to him."

Meanwhile, the League posted on its website that the Sadrists were to send a committee to meet the group's leader Qais al-Khazaali to discuss the League laying down its weapons and joining the political process.

But League spokesman Muayad al-Khazraji rejected the proposal out of hand, saying it "refuses to give up our weapons as long as there is an occupation in the country," referring to the presence of nearly 50,000 US troops in Iraq.

Sadr responded on Friday, arguing in another statement, "Asaib Ahel al-Haq wants to bring me down in the eyes of my followers in the Iraqi community," seeking to portray him as no longer the leading opponent of the US troop presence.

"I will not accept anyone who has initiated sectarian strife, who has tried to tarnish my reputation, and who has killed Iraqis in cold blood, into the political process, however much they want to join," he added.

The League of the Righteous split from Sadr in 2004, and has since claimed it kidnapped British IT consultant Peter Moore and his four bodyguards in 2007.

Moore was the only member of the group to be released alive, eventually being handed back late last year.

Khazaali was freed from Iraqi custody in January in an apparent prisoner swap after Moore's release.

The League of the Righteous also snatched US army interpreter Issa T. Salomi, a US citizen, in January this year before releasing him two months later.

It is also suspected of being behind an attack in January 2007 in which one US soldier was killed and four others were abducted. They too were later found dead.

Iraq's National Reconciliation Commission decided in April 2009 to include the League of the Righteous in talks with various groups in an effort to get them to join the political process.

Four months later, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki opened a dialogue with them, but the group ended the talks in December 2009 because no agreement was reached.

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