KUFA, Iraq—Efforts to avoid a clash between U.S. troops and the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appeared to be at an end Friday, with al-Sadr angrily vowing from the pulpit to fight to the death any effort to capture him and members of his militia digging foxholes and preparing for combat.
Coalition forces reportedly clashed with al-Sadr's supporters outside this city, though details were sketchy.
Top-ranking Shiites have worked for the past week to avoid fighting in Kufa and in nearby Najaf that could imperil the holiest shrines of Shiite Islam.
But after first appearing willing to compromise, al-Sadr made clear Friday that he wouldn't surrender or disband his Mahdi Army militia, whose rebellion on April 4 sparked fighting that so far has claimed the lives of 88 Americans and hundreds of Iraqis.
"Every person has to take a stand, either with us or against us," the cleric told a sea of followers in the Kufa Mosque compound. "Neutrality doesn't exist between us and the Americans."
Thousands of fists shot into the air, and the crowd chanted al-Sadr's name as U.S. warplanes flew overhead. Outside, dozens of heavily armed Mahdi Army gunmen took positions on rooftops, dug foxholes and dragged concrete barriers across the main access road to the two cities.
Who clashed with the black-clad militia on Friday was unclear. News reports offered conflicting accounts. Some agencies said U.S. soldiers were involved in the battle, while others reported that Spanish and Salvadoran members of the coalition came under attack and fired back, killing five Iraqis.
At coalition headquarters in Baghdad, a U.S. military spokeswoman said early Saturday that they had no field reports of any coalition clashes Friday in either Kufa or Najaf.
Al-Sadr's supporters—including Sunni Muslim sympathizers, who usually oppose Shiites and their clerics—have been attacking coalition forces across central and southern Iraq. They've also taken control of several city centers, including Najaf and Kufa.
U.S. commanders insist they will "kill or capture" the rebel cleric, who's charged in connection with the slaying of a pro-Western Shiite cleric a year ago. But so far, U.S. forces have refrained from entering the holy cities where al-Sadr has holed up.
It was al-Sadr's first appearance at the mosque in two weeks, and he was defiant. He pledged to maintain his militia, which the U.S.-led coalition sought to disband.
"I won't betray al-Mahdi, and I won't desert them," the cleric said to raised fists and chants. "We will fight until God brings us victory."
He also said he wouldn't go into exile—an indication that that had been a proposal in an effort to negotiate a settlement.
His one concession was to urge an end to the kidnapping of foreigners. Soon after, a Syrian-born Canadian worker who was kidnapped April 8 was brought to his office in Najaf and released.
But al-Sadr also called for the death of all Iraqis who work for the coalition, saying they were "traitors."
Earlier this week, officials in Kufa had expressed hope that al-Sadr was moving toward a compromise, worked out with the support of top clerics, that would keep U.S. troops from storming the city or Najaf.
Last weekend, al-Sadr sent female relatives to meet with female relatives of Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, to seek Sistani's help, according to a Najaf official familiar with the negotiations.
Sistani, who distrusts al-Sadr, refused to get involved, said the official, who asked not to be identified. But the al-Dawa, or Islamic Call Party, agreed to help, and Sistani gave that assistance his tacit approval.
For a week, al-Dawa leaders tried to defuse the situation. Under a proposal presented to the Americans, al-Sadr would tone down his rhetoric and disband his militia, but retain his offices and the right to preach weekly in the Kufa Mosque, the site where the Shiites' Imam Ali was slain more than 1,300 years ago.
Al-Sadr also would appear before an Islamic court to answer charges of his alleged involvement in the murder of fellow cleric Abdel-Majid al Khoei, who was killed in Najaf's Grand Imam Ali Shrine by a mob last April. The trial would take place after the installation of an Iraqi government.
At first, al-Sadr appeared predisposed to the compromise. A spokesperson on Wednesday went so far as to agree to "unconditional talks" with the Americans in deference to the marjaiya, or top clerics.
But on Friday, al-Sadr lashed out at the holy men for not acting more forcefully on his behalf.
"I wanted to free the holy city of Najaf from the Americans and deliver it into the hands of the marjaiya. But they weren't prepared for that. They all said they don't want that," al-Sadr said. "It appears they are afraid for their lives and for their station in life, fearing that they might live in hunger or lose something" by agreeing to fight the coalition.
The deal crumbled when the United States placed another condition on the table, said Sheik Ali Merza, who heads the Najaf office of al-Dawa. Merza said he didn't know what that condition was.
"Now it seems both sides were trying to buy more time," Merza said. "Al-Sadr was looking to increase Mahdi numbers and arms" while the Americans were hoping al-Sadr would become more isolated from Najaf residents weary of being under siege.
With the arrival of an Iranian diplomatic delegation overnight that claims to be seeking a settlement at the request of the Americans, Merza said his group has largely stepped aside from the negotiations.
The delegation, which includes a high-ranking member of Iran's foreign ministry, prayed at the Grand Imam Ali Shrine, but as of Friday evening hadn't met with al-Sadr, a spokesperson for the cleric said.
The United States has denied it asked Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, to help.
(Contributing to this story from Baghdad were Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald and Bob Moran of The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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