Iraqi cleric emerges as tricky enemy for US

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The Independent Online

America is nervously considering a showdown with Muqtada al-Sadr, the young cleric who controls the great Shia slum known as al-Sadr city in Baghdad and this week denounced the US occupation.

Mr Sadr, whose authority is the legacy of his father Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999, said on Tuesday: "Whoever co-operates with the occupation forces is not a Shia - indeed they are not Muslims." He added that the US should announce a quick timetable for the withdrawal of its troops. A week ago Mr Sadr's men killed two US soldiers and wounded four others in an ambush in Baghdad.

The US is moving gingerly because its troops have largely kept out of al-Sadr city, where 90 per cent of the mosques are controlled by clerics loyal to Mr Sadr and where two million people, half of Baghdad's population, live in poverty. An unnamed Pentagon official in Washington said yesterday that the US was preparing for a showdown with him. But the US is fearful of provoking a Shia backlash in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

Sheikh Abbas, an official of Mr Sadr's movement, told The Independent that US forces had struck a deal whereby they would not enter al-Sadr city. The town hall was taken over by Mr Sadr's men earlier this month. Sheikh Abbas was contemptuous of the US-appointed governing council which he said "had done nothing for the people of Iraq in four months". The council's interior minister denounced Mr Sadr as "a common criminal and a disgrace to his country and his religion".

The US does not want to risk alienating Iraq's 15 to 16 million Shias, who make up a majority of the country's 25 million population. They are generally supportive of Saddam's overthrow, but they are hostile or ambivalent about the US occupation. Mr Sadr is supported only by a minority and has been losing ground to other Shia leaders in southern Iraq but his supporters are well organised, militant and are willing to use violence.

Larry Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman, said nobody knew how much force was commanded by Mr Sadr. Sheikh Abbas said that Mr Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army, was unarmed, but added that "in Iraq every family has a gun".