KUFA, Iraq—Some looked like battle-ready, disciplined militiamen, shouldering AK-47 assault rifles over black flak vests and ammo-clip bandoliers. Others were teenagers, wearing Islamic green bandanas, swords swinging from their belts as they wobbled under the weight of rocket-propelled grenades.
All looked like they were prepared to fight to prevent the capture of Sheik Muqtada al Sadr, the 30-year-old Shiite cleric whose militia seized police stations in Baghdad and killed eight U.S. soldiers on Sunday.
U.S. officials announced Monday that Sadr is wanted in connection with the hacking death of a moderate Shiite cleric in a Muslim holy site in Najaf nearly a year ago.
But there was only defiance inside Sadr's headquarters, the half-square-mile, open-air Kufa Mosque compound.
"They have money and weapons and soldiers and equipment," Sadr said in a single-page written message. "Nevertheless, it will not weaken us because Allah is with us. Let them know that death is normal for us—but our gift from God is martyrdom."
The scene inside the mosque underscored the dilemma that U.S. officials face as they try to counter the first armed challenge from a member of Iraq's religious majority. Sadr may be an outlaw, as U.S. Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer branded him Monday, but he's an outlaw with a following, an armed militia and a headquarters that's a sacred and ancient center of Shiite worship.
Intermingled among the sea of worshippers at the mosque were hundreds of Muslim devotees to Sadr's Mahdi's Army.
The restless crowd became silent for a statement read by a Sadr assistant. "I reject the verdict of tyranny," the statement said, blasting Bremer's earlier condemnation. The statement slammed "their American terrorist law and filthy constitution" and declared Sadr's allegiance only to Islamic, or shariya, law. And the Americans "have nothing to do with it," he said.
The mosque is a daunting redoubt. Its 80-foot ramparts are lined with Sadr's followers, giving them a commanding view of the neighborhood. All visitors are firmly frisked as they enter its centuries-old walls. Armed men commanded the five-block area around it, where thousands churned throughout the day.
"We pray to God: Help and support Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada," chanted a scrum of identically black-clad gunmen, waving their assault rifles in the air.
"We don't have the weapons and we don't have money. But we believe in Allah and we will sacrifice ourselves if the Americans don't listen," said Baghdad laborer Mohammed Moqtada Musawi, 37, who came to the mosque over the weekend to serve as a human shield. It was a two-hour journey from Sadr City past coalition checkpoints.
Asked whether he thought Americans fear Sadr and the support he has gathered around him, he replied: "They don't fear him personally, they fear his message."
Sadr himself did not make an appearance. He was reported to be deep inside a prayer room of the mosque where Imam Ali, the founder of Shiism, was killed in A.D. 661.
A firebrand who became free to talk only after U.S.-led troops invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, Sadr has been uniformly opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq. He's garnered widespread Shiite admiration, if not support, for emerging as an advocate of majority Shiite rights in a country riven by rivalries and jealousies between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
He mostly derives his support from young seminary students and impoverished Shiites who revered his father, an elder of Iraq's Shiite clerical community who was gunned down along with his two brothers by suspected Saddam agents in 1999.
Sadr has long been viewed with suspicion by American authorities, however, ever since the slaying last April of a rival cleric, Abdel-Majid al Khoei. Americans had flown Khoei in from London shortly after Baghdad fell, in hopes that he would be a moderating influence on Shiites. Instead, Khoei was hacked to death in a shrine in Najaf as he met with Sadr's followers.
Since then, U.S. officials have said they also suspect Sadr of being involved in a number of notorious acts, including the car bombing last August outside a mosque in Najaf that killed another prominent cleric and at least 78 other Iraqis.
Last October, his militias briefly seized a shrine in Karbala and an office in Najaf. And U.S. officials said they believe his forces also may have been behind the bombing of the Baghdad Hotel, which was aimed at a member of the Iraqi Governing Council who was inside.
But U.S. officials did not move against him then and had hoped that other Iraqi clerics had managed to control his forces.
The most recent tension began more than a week ago, after Bremer ordered a newspaper run by Sadr's followers closed. Two days later, demonstrators demanded that the paper be reopened.
On Sunday, the list of demands grew to include the release of an unspecified number of prisoners, notably a key aide named Sheik Mustafa al-Yacoubi, who was arrested on Saturday and was also charged in connection with Khoei's death.
By Monday, Sadr's demands had morphed into a rambling, typewritten list that circulated around the compound: The Americans must withdraw. They must leave Iraqis to govern themselves. They must release all detainees. And this: "I also demand they reveal the crimes committed by the occupation forces, and try them, especially those who did bad things to the Iraqi people."
Sadr has regularly given Friday sermons from the Kufa mosque and stayed exclusively in the south since the U.S. invasion a year ago. Senior coalition spokesman Dan Senor said the U.S. decided to arrest him now at an unnamed Iraqi judge's urging.
But where an effort to grab Sadr would come from was unknown.
No coalition forces could be seen patrolling near Kufa, which is about 10 miles from Najaf. The only presence in the town of the pro-American Iraqi Civil Defense Corps was a checkpoint several blocks from the mosque.
And the only armed show of force in the teeming neighborhood surrounding the mosque was Sadr's own militia.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SADR
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040405 USIRAQ Sadr