BAGHDAD, April 6 (UPI) -- U.S. troops supported by Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M-1 tanks surrounded Tuesday the office of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while a large-scale demonstration of his heavily armed supporters is under way.
Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, has vowed to fight to protect the building. Its supporters have dispersed into the surrounding homes with weapons. United Press International has seen men with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades in the neigborhood. The supporters waved signs of all major Shiite Clerics -- including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the late Ayatollah Mohammed Hakim, Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadr, and the young cleric -- in a sign of unity rarerly seen as Sadr and Sistani are known not to get along.
About two hours into the standoff, despite the neighborhood being sealed off by U.S. troops, two Sunni clerics -- one from the Anbar province, which includes the towns of Ramadi and Fallujah, and another from Adamiyah -- arrived with a letter, which proclaimed support for Sadr's opposition to the U.S.-led occupation forces, signaling for the first time a public alliance between the previously Sunni and Baathist resistance and the Iraq's Shiite majority. It is the first time the Army of Mohammed has publicly announced support for Sadr. The letter called upon all Muslims to come together to throw out "infidel occupiers of Iraq."
It is the conflict with the Shiite followers of Sadr -- who controls a seminary and charity system he inherited from his father -- that offers the newest pessimistic signs for the transition of Iraq in a year of terror and strife.
Although Sadr has been a persistent critic of the occupation, he'd been marginalized by the far more influential Sistani, an Iranian born cleric widely considered the Iraqi Shiite's spiritual leader. But with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority's suspension of Sadr's newspaper and the subsequent arrest of one of his top aides last week, his significant following in the poorest regions of Iraq -- southern Shiite towns and the ghettos of Baghdad -- became inflamed to the point the weekend violence was enough to send much of the country into chaos.