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Iranian-backed cleric wants guerrillas to be part of new Iraqi army

NAJAF, Iraq—The leader of Iraq's largest Shiite opposition group said Tuesday that he'd like to see his armed guerrilla fighters incorporated into a new Iraqi army.

The Badr Brigade, with an estimated 10,000 Iranian fighters, has stayed out of sight since Saddam Hussein's regime fell last month. The second in command of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to whom the brigade answers, said last month that its troops were still armed.

Some Badr fighters remain in Iran, where the government opted not to let them cross into Iraq during the war after the Bush administration warned the Islamic republic that it would view such an act as hostile.

On Tuesday, at least a dozen plainclothes Badr fighters guarded their leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, as he gave his first news conference since returning to his hometown of Najaf on Monday after decades of exile in Iran.

"The Badr forces will have two roles: to keep security and to be part of the Iraqi military forces," Hakim said through a translator. Any resistance his group would offer should the United States not leave Iraq in a timely manner would be "political resistance," not violent, he said.

Hakim said his top priorities were to help "establish civil society and work to set up the Iraqi government that will represent all people of Iraq." He declined to say whether he would be a candidate for any leadership position in the new government.

"The majority of Iraqi people are Shiite, and we'd like to see them have a political role," he said. Nevertheless, "this will not be an Islamic state, and it will not be a secular state, because (that) does not respect religion."

"We don't want a Taliban state and we don't want Islam on American terms, either," Hakim said last week. He fled Iraq 23 years ago after Saddam's regime killed dozens of his family members.

Elsewhere, some U.S. soldiers who were checking a warehouse near Taji to see if it contained chemical weapons had a serious reaction to a liquid that spilled from one of about three dozen barrels.

A handful of the 19 soldiers with the 4th Infantry Division showed symptoms of exposure to chemical agents and were taken to an Army hospital for examination. Initial tests for chemicals were negative, according to Army officials, and further tests are being conducted.

The soldiers are part of a team that is preparing Taji East airfield for use by the 4th Infantry Division.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents John Sullivan in Jalula, Iraq, and Andrea Gerlin in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.