Iraqi Shiite leader wants to form militia

A CALL TO ARMS: Sheik Abdel Hadi al-Daraji said that while Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein molested religious sites, the Americans were doing the same now


Sun, Aug 17, 2003 - Page 6

The most combative group of Shiite Muslims announced during their main prayer sermon on Friday that they would proceed with a controversial proposal to form their own militia to safeguard holy sites from any transgressions by US troops.

More than 3,000 of the faithful flooded one of the dusty main thoroughfares in Sadr City, a predominately Shiite slum in Baghdad, to hear the prayer leader, Sheik Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, denounce the US forces accusing them of defiling sacred places after an incident on Wednesday in which a US Blackhawk helicopter forced down a flag near a Sadr City mosque.

"Yesterday Saddam the infidel used to assault our sacred sites and especially the people of this holy city," Daraji said. "Now the Americans are doing the same thing. So what is the difference between Saddam and America?"

The sheik also belittled America's ability to improve the lives of Iraqis, who get about 10 hours of electricity per day in Baghdad.

He hinted that the US might be selling Iraq's electricity elsewhere, perhaps to Israel, and led the crowd in special prayers to ask God to provide power 24 hours a day.

"To denounce the lack of services provided by the Americans, pray to Muhammad," the prayer leader said as the crowd roared back their prayer. "To denounce the lack of electricity, pray to Muhammad."

The proposal for a Shiite religious militia initially received a tepid response from other, senior clergymen. Its revival could set the stage for renewed tension between the older, more respected, scholars who control the influential seminary movement -- known as the Hawza -- and Sadr's young clerics who enjoy a wide street following in Baghdad.

Also on Friday, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, in a sermon in the holy city of Najaf, called on the Arab and Islamic world to support the Iraqi Governing Council, an interim government organized with US backing. But in what appeared to be a stab at mollifying growing anti-US sentiment, he also suggested that the US had initially pushed the council away from Islamic principles.

The mood in Sadr City was subdued on Friday after the incident on Wednesday.

The US military and local residents gave conflicting accounts of what happened. Residents said someone on the US helicopter seemed to be trying to remove a holy banner intentionally. That led to a violent riot and US gunfire ultimately left one Iraqi dead and four injured.

US officials said downward "rotor wash" generated by the hovering helicopter stripped the flag from the tower.

The US forces issued an apology for the incident that seemed to largely mollify the public. But the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a militant young cleric descended from a long line of illustrious clergymen, seized on the response to the incident to revive a proposal he made last month to form a special clerical army, the Army of Muhammad.

Daraji said during his sermon that it would consist of eight units deployed in different Baghdad neighborhoods. Women would be among the fighters.

"It is only to tell the enemy that we have the ability to respond," Daraji said. "That will prevent them from assaulting us."

At the same time, he said, the US forces should welcome the militia because it will give the clergy a means to control the inevitable anger of the crowds after any incident like the one involving the helicopter.

"We think the situation has deteriorated and I think people will move against the Americans whether the army interferes or not," the sheik said of the new force. "One person could use a Kalashnikov to express his frustration, so how can we quell these masses?"

During the sermon he told the worshipers to control their emotions, and they dispersed peacefully. Indeed, the powerful influence of the Hawza in telling the Shiites not to confront the Americans accounts for the minimal attacks against US and British troops in the predominately Shiite southern parts of Iraq. Shiites form some 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.

But tempers are fraying given the heat, lack of electricity and rising prices needed for the fuel to power generators. No one interviewed in Sadr City on Friday had ever heard one of the explanations given by US officials, that a severely battered infrastructure suffering from years of neglect and recent sabotage would take time to revive.

Some thought it was time to put the Americans on notice that they should leave.

"Confrontation. Confrontation, we don't want them anymore," said Ghazak, a 23-year-old student who said he would join the Army of Muhammad because of the helicopter incident.

"When they assault the name of Muhammad's family, they assault all Muslims. This is the only response they could understand, confrontation."

Others, happy to be free of Saddam Hussein, said they were willing to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt.

The US has been channeling its efforts for a security force into a civil defense force, discouraging or disarming previously formed private armed forces. There was no specific reaction to the proposal for a clerical-run militia.