Rebel Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said today that he could unleash suicide bombers if U.S. forces attacked the southern city of Al-Najaf, and called on the entire country to unite to expel Iraq's occupiers.
"Lots of believers, men and women, came to me and asked permission to become martyrs and to execute martyrdom operations," al-Sadr said. "I keep telling them to wait."
U.S. forces are poised just outside Al-Najaf and have vowed to kill or capture al-Sadr and destroy his Al-Mahdi Army, which has clashed with coalition forces across southern and central Iraq. But there are fears that a U.S. attack on the holy city could spark a wider and bloodier uprising.
A leading Shi'a said the U.S. decision to loosen its 'de-Ba'athification' policy is akin to putting Nazis back in charge of Germany after World War II.
In the southern holy city of Karbala, a Bulgarian soldier was killed today after an ambush on coalition forces by Shi'a militiamen.
Al-Sadr's message was echoed by a Sunni Muslim cleric in Baghdad. Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Ghafur Samarrai told worshipers at a mosque today that the U.S.-led coalition would face a national uprising if it attacks Al-Fallujah, a Sunni flashpoint that has been besieged by U.S. Marines since 5 April.
The threats came after the top U.S. Marine commander in Iraq laid down an ultimatum yesterday to insurgents in Al-Fallujah, saying they have "days, not weeks" to respect a truce by surrendering their heavy weaponry or face a renewed offensive.
A city of some 300,000 people, Al-Fallujah has been a bastion of insurgency for the past year. Local doctors say some 600 people were killed in the Marine offensive.
In a bid to stem Sunni anger in Al-Fallujah and elsewhere, the coalition announced today that it will restore some purged officers and top officials from Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated system in an overhaul of the "de-Ba'athification" policy -- provided they are untainted by Saddam's rule.
About 400,000 Iraqis had lost their jobs due to the policy. The change was announced by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator, in an address televised in Iraq.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher explained the anticipated shift during a briefing in Washington yesterday.
"The goal is to balance the need for expertise and experience that some Iraqis have with the need for justice," Boucher said. "And that's something that we're looking at and we're working to address it. It's being worked on by the coalition in Baghdad, by the Governing Council in Baghdad, and I think they will have more to say on this as they come to more conclusions about how to revise the implementation of the policy."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has said the changes could allow some former Ba'athists to join an interim Iraqi government being put together by the United Nations ahead of a planned transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on 30 June.
The policy shift was sharply criticized today by a leading member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Ahmad Chalabi, a Shi'a with long-standing ties to Washington, said in Baghdad that the new U.S. policy is akin to putting Nazis back in charge of Germany after World War II.
Today's developments followed the ultimatum issued in Al-Fallujah by Lieutenant-General James Conway, the top Marine commander in Iraq.
Suggesting the Al-Fallujah truce brokered on 19 April was near collapse, Conway urged city leaders to push for a solution to the standoff with the some 2,000 insurgents, believed to be a mix of foreign fighters -- mainly from Syria and Yemen -- and native militants, including members of Saddam Hussein's former Special Republican Guard.
At the same time, however, Conway expressed doubts about the ability of local leaders to rein in the various groups fighting in Al-Fallujah. He also added that U.S. commanders are concerned about the political costs of having to conquer the city by force and how those images would play on Arab television.
In Baghdad, U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the deputy commander of coalition military operations in Iraq, also said yesterday that the ability of Al-Fallujah's local leaders to influence the insurgents will determine whether the standoff is resolved peacefully.
"It's clearly the desire of the coalition at this time that we try to attempt a peaceful resolution to the situation in Fallujah, to avoid any further bloodshed, to avoid any further damage, to avoid another fight -- which can be avoided if those leaders show leadership and go back and persuade the people that are holding their city hostage that this is the best deal that they are going to get," Kimmitt said.
Marine commanders are reportedly pulling in reinforcements from western Iraq to build an Al-Fallujah force of more than 3,500. Marines are also conducting raids in the city's suburbs to kill or capture fighters and dry up support for them.
But Iraqi officials say a peaceful outcome has grown more elusive in part because the U.S. offensive earlier this month generated backlash across Iraq and cast the Sunni bastion as the "Iraqi Alamo" -- a reference to a 19th-century battle in Texas that is a symbol of courageous resistance.
(RFE/RL and wire reports)