NAJAF, Iraq—The armed militia of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr remained in charge of this holiest of Shiite Muslim cities Tuesday as U.S. troops intent on arresting the cleric massed outside Najaf.
With a 2,500-strong American force backed by tanks and artillery in position around this central Iraqi city, al Sadr took to the airwaves Tuesday to pledge that he would die before giving up. A clash appeared likely even as all sides engaged in secret negotiations to prevent fighting similar to the violence that gripped the city of Fallujah over the past week.
An open clash in this center of Shiite theology could further undermine the support that U.S. troops enjoyed a year ago when they toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, who'd oppressed Iraq's Shiite majority, and further complicate the prospects for a smooth transition to Iraqi rule.
Dozens of al Sadr's supporters, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, ran checkpoints into and out of the city and stood watch in alleys leading to the Grand Imam Ali Shrine, where only a trickle of the usual stream of worshippers dared to pass throughout the day. Even so, the black attire worn over the past week by al Sadr's Mahdi Army was gone and their numbers were reduced.
At police headquarters Tuesday night, a top al Sadr representative barked orders into a walkie-talkie while glaring at the nervous police chief, who was trying to re-establish the authority of his 3,000-strong force after it was chased away by al Sadr's men last week.
"Having people with weapons trying to control the streets is definitely a problem for us, but we can't just arrest everyone," said Police Chief Ali al Yasseri, who conceded that it would take weeks to regain control, despite al Sadr's agreeing to withdraw from government buildings and disperse his troops.
While the reduced militia presence convinced more people to head outdoors after mostly staying at home over the past week, many stores remained shuttered. Other business owners piled sandbags around their wares to protect them from an expected fight between American troops and the Mahdi Army.
Al Yasseri and senior Shiite religious figures say a U.S. assault could precipitate a civil war between Shiite factions. Al Sadr's fighters believe the battle with the Americans is one divined by Shiite lore.
On Monday night, the sons of Iraq's four key marjahs—senior Shiite religious leaders—reportedly met with al Sadr and assured him they opposed his arrest and any coalition attempts to enter Najaf. The U.S. military is seeking to arrest al Sadr in connection with the slaying of a pro-Western Shiite cleric a year ago in a violent confrontation that drove Iraq's Shiite spiritual leaders into seclusion and brought al Sadr to the attention of Iraqis and Americans.
The U.S. moves to arrest al Sadr have prompted a sense of Iraqi solidarity with a cleric whom most Shiite leaders dismiss as irrelevant.
The Americans' arrest of al Sadr's senior aide, Sheik Mustafa al Yacoubi, on April 4 in connection with the slaying spurred al Sadr's militia to take over the city and clash with coalition forces and Iraqi police in the first place, al Yasseri said.
"I know Sheik Yacoubi. He's lived here all of his life and is a quiet man. We could have brought him and asked him a few questions if we'd known the Americans wanted him, and none of this would have happened," al Yasseri said.
Iraqis' eagerness to avoid confrontation has strengthened al Sadr, who lacks the religious credentials of the grand ayatollahs who are negotiating with him. Even the most powerful among them, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, who wields control of another powerful militia, called the Badr Brigade, isn't challenging al Sadr's grab for power.
That has left al Sadr unhindered in waging a war to conquer Najaf's hearts and minds and to convince people to establish an Islamic theocracy with a single, supreme ayatollah in charge, similar to neighboring Iran.
Posters and banners of al Sadr and his message dominate the city, including in the Grand Imam Ali shrine, which the vehemently anti-American cleric took control of April 4. His picture and those of the Iranian Islamic republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and its current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now adorn the wall of the shrine's key office.
But he hasn't won many converts. Many Najaf residents, while intimidated by the show of force, view al Sadr and his militia as little more than thugs.
"They show no mercy," said baker Kerar Yassin, 23, gesturing to two Mahdi Army gunmen nearby. "People are afraid, but they don't support al Sadr."
"Posters aren't going to win me over," agreed Abdul Hussein Mohammed, 50, a jewelry store owner. "Saddam had a lot of pictures hanging up too, and look where he is now. Our true marjahs don't need any pictures."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.