NAJAF, Iraq -- American troops moved in force Monday to arrest the U.S.-appointed mayor of this southern Iraqi town, removing him on kidnapping and corruption charges and detaining 62 of his aides -- a step likely to please Najaf's Shiite residents.
The arrest came as a sweep across central Iraq entered its second day, aimed at capturing Saddam Hussein loyalists and curbing a wave of attacks on American soldiers. But so far in the crackdown, dubbed Operation Sidewinder, no major fugitives have been reported arrested.
Some soldiers say their efforts have been plagued by faulty intelligence and bad luck.
Southern Iraq, dominated by Shiite Muslims who largely hated Saddam, has seen less violence in recent weeks -- though many Shiites have rankled at U.S. domination. One of the country's top Shiite clerics issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, this week, denouncing U.S. administrators' plans to appoint a council to draw up a new constitution and demanding elections so Iraqis can elect their own constitutional convention.
Former army colonel
The arrest of the mayor of Najaf, Abu Haydar Abdul Mun'im, came less than three months after he was installed by American troops, who entered the town in April. The former Iraqi army colonel was unpopular from the start with the local population because of his background in Saddam's military.
In recent weeks, residents of Najaf, 110 miles southwest of Baghdad, have held demonstrations against Abdul Mun'im, accusing him of links to Saddam's Baath Party.
Coalition forces made the arrest at the request of an Iraqi investigative judge in Najaf, said a statement by the U.S.-led provisional authority.
In addition to kidnapping, Abdul Mun'im stands accused of holding hostages, pressuring government employees to commit financial crimes, and attacking a bank official.
"They have been investigating these allegations for some time before concluding that there is sufficient evidence to warrant arrest," the statement said. "These allegations are very serious."
Abdul Mun'im was replaced by Haydar Mahdi Mattar al Mayali, a former deputy in the mayor's office.
On Monday, U.S. forces blocked the entrance to Abdul Mun'im's offices and would not let reporters enter.
From his headquarters in Najaf, one of Iraq's most senior Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa saying a constitutional council handpicked by the Americans was "fundamentally unacceptable."
"There is no guarantee that the council would create a constitution conforming with the greater interests of the Iraqi people and expressing the national identity, whose basis is Islam and its noble social values," read the fatwa, dated Saturday and posted on al-Sistani's Web site.
The ayatollah called for elections to pick delegates to a constitutional convention and a referendum to approve any constitution it draws up. Al-Sistani, one of Iraq's most influential people, has been largely supportive of American interests since Saddam's ouster -- and it wasn't clear how the fatwa would affect U.S. plans for a new government.
Al-Sistani and another senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, told The Associated Press on Monday that they favored a peaceful end to the U.S. occupation, and its replacement by a representative Iraqi government.
"What we want is the formation of a government that represents the will of the Iraqi people, by all its sects and ethnic groups," said al-Sistani.
Al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, dismissed U.S. concerns about his group's links to neighboring Iran, and also called for the end of the occupation.
"Our demand is that a government be formed by the Iraqis and work to end the occupation by peaceful means," he said.
Sidewinder, which began early Sunday, was an effort by the Americans to snuff out remaining pockets of anti-occupation resistance in the so-called "Sunni triangle" north and west of Baghdad, where Saddam enjoyed a degree of support.
U.S. troops have been increasingly targeted in recent weeks, raising fears that their mission will become mired by a guerrilla-style insurgency. At least 20 American and six British troops have been killed by hostile fire since President Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1. Two more Americans were found dead over the weekend after several days missing and believed abducted, but the circumstances of their deaths were not yet known.
As part of the sweep, troops detained a colonel from Saddam's Baath Party along with five other individuals, a military statement said Monday, without providing details. The statement said at least 319 Iraqis have been detained in several operations, including Sidewinder, across Iraq since Sunday.
There have been no reports of U.S. casualties during Sidewinder, the military said.
Also Monday, insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a military vehicle in the restive town of Fallujah, injuring an NBC news sound engineer. A pickup truck -- apparently driven by an Iraqi rushing a sick neighbor to a hospital -- then slammed into a vehicle helping evacuate the wounded reporter. The three Iraqis in the truck were killed.
NBC News producer Carol Grisanti identified the injured employee as Australian Jeremy Little, a television sound man. She said his injuries were serious but not life threatening.
"It's very serious, but his vitals are stable," said Marcus O'Brian, a cameraman who was in another vehicle in the convoy. Little was brought to a military combat hospital. Grisanti said Little underwent surgery Monday and may have to have another operation Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a huge explosion at an ammunitions depot killed at least three people and injured four in the western city of Hadithah, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, according to initial reports from the U.S. military. It was not immediately clear who the ammunition belonged to or what caused the explosion.