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Al-Sadr shows no intention of meeting U.S. demands

KUFA, Iraq—Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday brushed off U.S. military attempts to intimidate him, delivered a biting sermon at the main Kufa mosque that declared America the "enemy of Islam" and scoffed at pleas for him to tone down his message.

Al-Sadr also failed to respond to a proposal delivered by Iraqi police and tribal leaders the day before that he leave Najaf and disband his Mahdi Army militia in exchange for U.S. soldiers agreeing to keep out and not go after him, said Ahmed al Sheybani, a spokesman for al-Sadr.

In the courtyard of the Grand Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, where al Sheybani spoke, echoes of gunfire between the militia and American forces nearby could be heard over Friday's call to evening prayer.

Weeks after U.S. forces vowed to capture or kill al-Sadr and disband his militia, there remained no obvious military or political way to achieve that goal, short of a full-scale assault on the city that would turn even more Iraqis against the U.S. effort.

Najaf's police chief conveyed the proposal for disbanding the militia, which he claimed was backed by the Americans, to al-Sadr. He was pessimistic that it would end the standoff and allow police officers and tribal leaders to resume control of Najaf, the holiest Shiite city.

"There's a lot of talking but a lot less action, and these people talk a lot," Police Chief Ali al Yasseri said Friday night, referring to the cleric's entourage.

The talk was particularly harsh at Kufa Mosque, where al-Sadr warned rowdy worshippers packed into the courtyard that the West—led by the United States—was determined to strip them of religious law, force women to shed headscarves and prevent men from taking more than one wife. (A Muslim man can marry as many as four.)

"Many people believe (the Americans) rescued us from Saddam Hussein," al-Sadr said. "But where's the freedom and democracy that they promised us?

"I will not give up defending the rights of the believers," he added. "As my father said before me, even if America can conquer the whole world, it cannot control the Muslims."

Al-Sadr's militia turned out by the hundreds on foot, on rooftops and in pickups across Kufa and Najaf with their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Busloads of supporters who arrived from the south the night before boosted crowd numbers, prompting many residents to stay indoors.

Al-Sadr supporters outside the mosque said they were jubilant that he'd shown up during a week when U.S. troops killed dozens of Mahdi fighters on the city's outskirts and frightened the rest into hiding.

"We have our force and we will fight to the death," said Hamid Rahim, 45, a mechanical engineer from Najaf.

On Friday, in an apparent show of respect for the Muslim Sabbath, no U.S. soldiers entered the cities. That angered some Najaf residents, who quietly hoped the Americans would oust the militia and end the cleric's power grab.

"They should've arrested him while he was in Kufa today," grumbled Hossein Safina, whose hotel Mahdi gunmen threatened to firebomb last week.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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