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Former Iraqi enemies unite to fight U.S.

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO   |   April 6, 2004 at 4:07 PM   |   Comments

BAGHDAD, April 6 (UPI) -- The American dream to bridge ancient Iraqi sectarian rivalries turned nightmarish Tuesday as Shiite and Sunni religious and tribal figures put aside their differences and publicly aligned against the occupation, vowing to rid Iraq of the American-led invaders.

In the past 72 hours over 18 U.S. soldiers and well over 100 Iraqis have died in vicious fighting across Iraq. U.S. aligned coalition forces also took significant casualties of an unconfirmed number in fighting in four southern cities.

Before last week the primary forces resisting the U.S. occupation were a combination of former Baath Party members and Sunni religious figures, but after fighting broke out between the coalition and a militia led by a young radical Shiite cleric, much of Iraq turned to complete chaos.

There are also indications that the two groups have come to an agreement to join with an al-Qaida affiliated terrorist group thought to have conducted widespread terrorist attacks against U.S. and Iraqi targets alike.

Moqtada Sadr -- a 30-year old cleric from outside the holy city of Najaf -- and his militia called the Mehdi Army started fighting with coalition troops Sunday and unrest has quickly spread.

But even as the Coalition Provisional Authority declared Sadr -- son of Mohammed Sadr, a renowned Shiite religious figure killed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1999 -- an outlaw, much of Iraq vented its frustration with the yearlong U.S. occupation by openly supporting his efforts.

But Tuesday afternoon, one of the worst possible scenarios the CPA could imagine came true in a public way when the Sunni-led resistance forces publicly declared their support for Sadr.

This development would have been unthinkable a week ago as the previous resistance organizations have been led by religious Sunni -- who consider the Shiite heretics in Islam -- and former Baath members whose secular regime brutally oppressed the Shiites for decades.

But even as U.S. tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles surrounded Sadr's headquarters in a vast Shiite neighborhood named for his father, emissaries arrived from the tribal leaders of Sunni regions and from the largest resistance movement in Iraq to offer their services to Sadr in his fight against the Americans.

Inside the Sadr office building, which was defended by about 100 armed and 400 unarmed men and boys, was cordoned off by the U.S. military, three obviously Sunni clerics arrived with a letter for the leaders of the Mehdi Army.

"We have come to see how our friends are doing," Sheikh Hudor al-Abari told United Press International.

Abari said he was representing the tribal sheik of the Anbar Province of Iraq, which contains the Sunni towns of Fallujah and Ramadi. Both cities are currently the scene of fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and the Army of Mohammed, an umbrella organization responsible for most of the anti-coalition violence over the last year.

Abari carried a letter from Sheikh Harrath Selman al-Tey, the leader of the largest Sunni tribe in Iraq and a man that holds massive sway over the Sunni triangle.

"The letter (to Moqtada Sadr) declares that we are the Army of Mohammed and all of Ramadi and Fallujah (offer) our army and people and souls and hearts and weapons under your command," he told UPI. "There is no more Shiite and Sunni, only Muslims and now we will fight each other no more and together fight the same enemy."

Inside Sadr's headquarters, the leaders of the Mehdi Army were preparing their followers for the night's combat against the U.S. forces in the neighborhood by handing out weapons and food to fighters. Sitting over bowls of rice and lamb meat, the fighters warmly welcomed a reporter to join them. They bragged of the damage they had done to the U.S. military in the past few nights -- 10 U.S. soldiers have been killed in fighting here the last two nights. But mostly they clowned with their visitor, insisting that he pose for photographs in an Arab scarf while holding an assault rifle.

But as U.S. tanks surrounded the building on one side and infantry carrying armored personnel carriers on the other, the men quickly went into business mode and emptied the building of heavy weapons through a back entrance. They deployed snipers and men carrying rocket-propelled grenades to the surrounding rooftops through a back entrance and took up a defensive position on the roof of the building itself.

Behind the building, militia members posed with weapons that they claimed they had taken from dead U.S. troops in the previous night's fighting, while young boys filled bottles with gasoline and pebbles to make homemade grenades.

Outside the office, the presence of the U.S vehicles did little to intimidate the demonstrators, who had to be restrained by Mehdi members from a frontal assault on the U.S. vehicles parked a few hundred meters away.

Chanting anti-U.S. slogans, the crowd went ecstatic as a statement was read by the head cleric over a loud speaker. It was a statement from Sadr himself, who has gone into hiding as U.S. troops claim they will arrest him on a murder charge for the killing of a rival cleric last year.

"I am very glad for all of you and your fighting and wish that I could be with you," the statement said to cheers of "Yes, Yes Moqtada" in Arabic.

"If I need to spill blood then I will spill my own to spare any of your lives," the statement continued.

Sadr's statement then paid homage to his onetime rival, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has issued support for Sadr's resistance of the Americans, but has stopped short of calling for violence. Sistani -- who has tepidly supported the U.S. occupation or at least, refused to condemn it -- holds enormous sway over Iraq's Shiite population, who consider him their most influential religious leader.

"I'll free (the holy city of Najaf) and give it to Sisatni on a gold plate if he agrees to take it," Sadr's statement said, a comment that many Mehdi members said indicated an agreement that Sadr would not challenge Sistani's religious authority in exchange for Sistani not condemning the anti-coalition efforts of Sadr.

"And we are going to take all of the Americans out of Iraq," the statement said.

A list of the cities currently resisting coalition forces was read to cheers: Ramadi, Fallujah, Amarrah, Najaf, Nasariyah and Baghdad.

Then a speaker thanked members of the crowd not from Sadr City who had come to take part in the revolt, including the Army of Mohammed and Ansar al-Islam.

Across Baghdad, the Shiite neighborhood of Khadamiya and the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya both saw open demonstrations after Monday night's clashes with U.S. troops. Both neighborhood groups fighting the U.S have declared support for Sadr.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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