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Najaf residents wearying of al Sadr as Mahdi Army continues to fight

NAJAF, Iraq—Peace has failed to bring reconciliation to this religious city where self-declared holy warriors battled U.S. forces last month.

Each day, hundreds of residents turn out to shout down rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. They blame him for leaving Najaf in ruins and blame his henchmen for slaying as many as 300 people.

The demonstrators shove past police to within a couple of hundred yards of al Sadr's office, where his advisers are holed up.

"Muqtada is garbage and his people are all crooks," demonstrators chanted Friday. That's an extraordinary slur for a man who's the son of an assassinated spiritual leader and merits the honorific, Sayyed, as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

This kind of outburst was unthinkable only three weeks ago, when al Sadr and his armed followers ruled Najaf and its holy shrine and led a nationwide insurgency against the American occupation. He flouted centuries-old tradition to defy the key spiritual leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority. He drove them into seclusion and their followers into fearful silence.

Now, the besieged have turned the tables, raising questions about how deep and broad al Sadr's support actually is. Al Sadr posters and pictures tacked up around the city streets and neighborhood shops have been torn down. The police, whom al Sadr's fighters drove from their Najaf and Kufa compounds last spring, have now packed their jail cells with the cleric's followers. They've also used heavy-handed tactics such as door-to-door searches, multiple checkpoints and arrests over the past two weeks to curb the al Sadr influence here.

On Thursday, they carted off three pickups filled with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weapons confiscated from the basement of al Sadr's office after the cleric acquiesced to the search at the request of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the leading Shiite religious authority.

"Al Sadr's hold on Najaf? It's over for good," said one police major who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The venomous backlash by the city's merchants, policemen and the wealthy, who suffered most under al Sadr's five-month rule, has rattled the cleric's top advisers, who are hunkered in his office within earshot of the protests. They blame Najaf's governor and police for orchestrating the demonstrations and using officers dressed in street clothes to rally the crowd.

The cleric and his entourage also have been cut off from the city of Kufa, where the mosque that was al Sadr's stronghold has been bricked up and his followers forced to pray outside under the watchful eyes of the Iraqi National Guard and local police, who occasionally heckle them from across the street.

But Ahmed al Sheybani, an al Sadr spokesman, warned that al Sadr's American-backed opponents are playing with fire. If the movement against him is pushed too far, al Sadr's supporters will resort to force, he said.

"Exactly five months ago they (the Americans) tried the same thing and look what happened," Sheybani said Friday, referring to the closing of al Sadr's newspaper in Baghdad that sparked al Sadr's Mahdi fighters to take over city centers across much of the south. "We have plenty of weapons left to fight."

Signs of renewed Mahdi activity are already emerging. On Tuesday, militants in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City attacked U.S. Army patrols, leading to clashes that killed dozens of Iraqis. On Friday, gunmen loyal to al Sadr took four Iraqi policemen hostages in the southern city of Basra, according to reports in Najaf. They're demanding that jailed al Sadr loyalists be freed.

Many Najaf residents are determined to have the government and police firmly in charge and al Sadr restrained by a cease-fire brokered by Sistani. They vow they won't give up until he and his followers leave.

"He doesn't deserve to be here with the other holy men," shouted Ali Ahmed, 24, a sundries salesman whose store was gutted in the fighting last month. "He's lessened their dignity and stole all of the riches from the shrine."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+najaf

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