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Moderate Shiite cleric warns U.S. against retaliating against radicals

KARBALA, Iraq—A moderate Shiite cleric warned Saturday against any American retaliation against a group of radical Muslims believed responsible for the deaths Thursday of three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi policemen during a gunfight here.

Sheik Abdul Mahdi, the administrator at the Imam Hussein mosque here, said any retaliation against Ayatollah Mahmoud al Hassani, one of Karbala's lesser-known ayatollahs, or his supporters would do more harm than good.

"We disagree with him," Mahdi said of Hassani. "But he is a cleric and if you put him in prison that will give him more supporters."

Mahdi's statements in an interview here underscore the precarious situation facing coalition troops eager to disarm a growing threat by radical Shiite clerics, but afraid to enflame an already deadly situation. While moderate Shiite Muslims are often the targets in the struggle by radical Shiites to gain control, they recognize that direct measures against them might simply generate support and encourage more violence.

On Saturday, thousands of pilgrims, many from Iran, came to pray at two of the Shiite faith's holiest shrines, the Hussein mosque and the Imam Abbas mosque. Hundreds of coalition troops massed just blocks away from the mosques at the site of the battle, which began late Thursday and raged into Friday.

U.S. officials said the gunfight had broken out when gunmen ambushed U.S. troops and Iraqi police investigating reports of armed men congregating after curfew. The gunmen opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Among the dead was Lt. Col. Kim S. Orlando, 43, the commander of 716th military police battalion, the highest-ranking Army officer killed by hostile fire since the Iraq war began March 20.

Mahdi, an associate of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite leader, welcomed Polish troops' sealing off roads into the city of about 1.5 million in an effort to stem the flow of arms into the city. But he said any attempt by U.S. troops to disarm gunmen would have disastrous consequences.

"That will make the people feel afraid and terrorized," he said.

Until recently, most of the violence directed against coalition troops has come from the minority Sunni Muslims loyal to the former regime of Saddam Hussein. An uprising by Shiites, which make up a majority of Iraq's 24 million people, would present an ominous second front in the coalition's efforts to restore order.

Residents in Karbala, the second holiest city for Shiites after Najaf, complain the Americans are using a heavy hand. The curfew is particularly resented.

"I respect the American troops; we owe them" for removing Saddam Hussein, said elderly Karbala resident Hassan Khalil. "But they have to respect the Iraqi people,"

On Saturday, a dozen American and Polish tanks lined a street near the site of Thursday's battle. An Apache helicopter circled overhead. U.S. and Polish soldiers on foot and in Humvees patrolled the streets and manned checkpoints.

Curious crowds of residents and pilgrims gathered behind razor wire barricades to gawk at tanks and soldiers. But there were no demonstrations.

Haidr Jabar, 21, who operates a cafe a few blocks from the mosques, blamed the trouble in Karbala on Shiite outsiders and U.S. soldiers.

"We would like them both to leave," he said. "The people in Karbala would like this to end, to be stable."

Cleric Mahdi said Hassani and most of his bodyguards had left Karbala, but a few gunmen may still be in the area. Mahdi said he had never met Hassani, but that he understood the radical cleric had appeared in Karbala from Baghdad two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Hassani was apparently an associate of Mohammed al Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric who was killed in 1999 on orders of Saddam Hussein. Sadr's son, Muqtada al Sadr, 30, recently has been singled out by U.S. officials as responsible for a string of recent suicide bombings aimed at eliminating moderate Shiite rivals for influence. Sadr has called the U.S.-appointed Governing Council illegitimate and last week named his own Islamic government, though he has since backed off, saying attempting to build a shadow government was a mistake.

Sadr, who recently visited Iran and said the Islamic regime supports him, clashed with Sistani loyalists in a deadly fight here Tuesday.

About 40, armed gunmen associated with Sadr took about eight people hostage and seized two mosques. A gun battle ensued with about 200 gunmen loyal to Sistani. It left at least one man dead. Two days of tense negotiations by religious authorities led to the release of the hostages Thursday.

On Friday, the two sides reconciled through an unnamed liaison, Mahdi said, leaving Sistani and his associates still in control of the mosques and other public buildings.


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