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Police in Najaf, Kufa confront worshippers approaching mosques

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Police blocked roads and fired warning shots Friday in an effort to keep worshippers from entering mosques in the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa, the sites of recent violent clashes.

Gunfire from an unknown source also rang out in Najaf as scores of protesters demonstrated near the revered Imam Ali shrine to demand that rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia leave the city.

The confrontations on prayer day came a week after Iraq's highest Shiite authority brokered a deal to end a bloody, three-week standoff in which U.S. and Iraqi forces were closing in on al-Sadr's militia, which was holed up in and near the Imam Ali shrine.

On Thursday, the Najaf provincial governor had appealed to Iraqis who weren't from Najaf to stay away from the battered heart of the city, including the shrine, for 10 days while experts find and remove explosives and unexploded ordnance left over from the standoff.

In Baghdad, a spokesman for al-Sadr condemned the Iraqi police actions Friday in the neighboring cities of Kufa and Najaf, about 100 miles south of the capital. Abd al-Hadi al-Daraji said police arrested some worshippers and that many people were injured in the confrontations.

The Iraqi Health Ministry said it had no reports of casualties resulting from the events in Kufa and Najaf.

In Kufa, police blocked roads leading into the city and Iraqi national guard snipers took positions atop buildings around the city's main mosque as worshippers began arriving for prayers before noon.

Police fired warning shots into the air as worshippers pressed toward the mosque. Eventually, Sheik Jaber al-Khafaji, the mosque's imam and an al-Sadr representative, used loudspeakers to address worshippers outside the holy site.

In a fiery condemnation of the Iraqi government and U.S.-led occupation, al-Khafaji portrayed al-Sadr's decision last week to yield the Imam Ali shrine to Iraqi forces as a win. Al-Sadr's fight for the shrine was "a battle for honor and dignity," he said.

"So, this is not a loss for us, because we are looking for one of two things: either victory or martyrdom," he said.

In Najaf, scores of demonstrators took to the streets in the battle-scarred heart of the city near the Imam Ali shrine to protest the presence of al-Sadr and his militia and to back Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who brokered last week's peace deal. The agreement called for the Mahdi Army to give up its arms, but many militia members in Najaf are thought to have kept them, hiding them at home or elsewhere.

"The demands of the demonstrators in general and for the people of Najaf especially are to ensure safety and security and to have stability back," said one protester, 38-year-old Abu Mohammed al-Najafi, identifying himself with a nickname.

Demonstrators shouted chants denouncing al-Sadr, including one that equated him with deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.

Shots from one or more unidentified gunmen rang out during the demonstration, reportedly causing no harm.

Police and Iraqi national guards prevented people from entering or approaching the Imam Ali shrine. They also set up checkpoints at Najaf's main northern and southern roadways, allowing only Najaf residents to enter the city.


(Special correspondent Qassim Mohammed contributed to this report from Najaf.)


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