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Iraqi Cleric Defies U.S. To Lead Prayers At Mosque

Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr 7 May 2004 -- Radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reached Kufa near the holy Iraqi city of Al-Najaf today to lead Friday prayers as usual, defying U.S. troops massed nearby, who have vowed to arrest him.

He traveled accompanied by some 500 followers and members of his militia, known as the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. U.S. commanders have said they will avoid fighting near religious sites.

The U.S. military says some 40 fighters of al-Sadr's militia were killed in heavy fighting in Kufa yesterday.

The military action came as the top U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, appointed a new Al-Najaf regional governor, Adnan al-Zurufi:

"The people of the Middle Euphrates [the Al-Najaf region] have asked the coalition for help, and we will provide it. We will do all we can. But only Iraqis can provide the leadership necessary to reinstate and maintain the rule of law. The governate of Najaf must have a strong Iraqi administrator. Governor Zurufi is such a man," Bremer said.

Bremer said al-Zurufi is the right man to maintain law and order in the region. He said al-Zurufi will have U.S. support to recruit, train, and equip new Iraqi police and civil defense forces.

Bremer also repeated his demand that al-Sadr -- who is wanted in connection with the murder last year of a rival cleric -- should face Iraqi justice and disband his armed followers. "Establishment of lawful tranquility requires Sayyid Muqtada [al-Sadr] and his armed followers no more and no less than what is required of all citizens," he said. "First, Sayyid Muqtada [al-Sadr] must face Iraqi justice for crimes of which he has been accused. And second, his armed followers must disarm, as must the members of all such armed groups."

U.S. forces say they have tightened their grip around Al-Najaf, retaking the governor's house on the edge of town from the Al-Mahdi Army.

The new governor, al-Zurufi, spoke about his priorities while in office: "To respect the rule of law and to disband all the armed militias and to hand over all weapons. To postpone all pending issues until the handover of power to Iraqis. To hand over security issues to the local police to practice its full authority in applying the law."

U.S. tanks, in what looks to be part of a broad operation against insurgents across southern Iraq, moved into the center of the nearby holy city of Karbala yesterday, destroying the offices of al-Sadr. Western news agencies report explosions and gunfire today in the city. Clashes between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's militiamen were reported earlier in the day in at least three other parts of the city.

At Friday prayers today at a mosque in Baghdad, Shi'a cleric Abd al-Hadi al-Daraji condemned the U.S. military action. "Yesterday's attacks by U.S. forces on the holy city of Al-Najaf, the city of Imam Ali, and what happened in Karbala, the city of Imam al-Hussein and Imam al-Abbas, are clear and dangerous indications that the U.S. forces, after the end of massacres in Al-Fallujah, have turned to Al-Najaf to attack our symbols, our leadership, and our Muslim clerics," he said.

Today, unknown assailants shot and killed two journalists, a Pole and an Algerian, in a drive-by shooting south of the capital. Both men are believed to have been working for a Polish television station. Another Pole is reported to have been wounded in the attack.

Meanwhile, an audio recording purportedly by Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is offering rewards in gold for the killing of several top officials -- including Bremer, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the UN's special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi.

The message was posted on a website known to be used by Islamic militants and was signed by the "military wing" of the Monotheism and Jihad Group, which is believed to be led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi is a Jordanian-born Sunni militant said to have links to Al-Qaeda. He is wanted by the United States on suspicion on organizing terrorist attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency says the voice on the tape is "likely" that of bin Laden.

(compiled from wire reports)

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