KUFA, Iraq, April 23 (UPI) -- Passing the Iraqi Police checkpoint to enter the tiny village of Kufa -- located outside the holy city of Najaf -- is a benign affair: The blue-shirted police just wave at the car as it passes through the roundabout.
They don't seem to care much about a car full of visitors from Baghdad, mostly because they watched at a safe distance as half a dozen militiamen practically tore the car apart 50 meters (55 yards) before their "checkpoint," while body searching and interrogating the visitors at gunpoint.
The police might not even have guns, but the militiamen -- members of Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army -- are nicely equipped with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s. Many even have homemade hand grenades strapped to their chests. Just off the road, down by the banks of a small creek, even more men, some with heavy weapons, can be seen preparing defensive positions inside the palm trees and brush that hug the bank.
This roundabout and riverbank is the tip of Kufa's defenses, and it is a town completely outside the control of coalition forces.
Kufa has two exports of note: Kufa Cola, a popular local soft drink, and Moqtada Sadr, a popular Shiite cleric currently waging war against the U.S.-led occupation. U.S. officials have vowed to kill or capture Sadr, who is said to be hiding in the nearby city of Najaf, considered the seat of Shiite Islam and the location of its holiest shrine and many of its top clerics.
Any attack on Najaf would likely cause a widespread revolt by Iraq's Shiite population and even Sadr's rival clerics, who have limited respect for the 31-year-old. He is really more of a student than a cleric in their eyes, but they have warned the United States against taking military action there.
But what Sadr lacks in religious credentials, he more than makes up for in popularity among the young, poor and religious Shiites frustrated by the U.S. occupation. And he was a charismatic -- if somewhat ignored -- voice for his followers in criticizing the occupation until early April's open combat between Mehdi and the coalition. Now Sadr has broader support from mainstream Iraqis and far more attention from the U.S. authorities in Iraq.
And his militia knows it. During the search, they spend a lot of time looking at a journalist's credentials and quiz him on his heritage. Other gunmen carefully check camera gear and with a practiced hand take pictures and check the digital readout themselves just to make sure they are actual cameras.
After some tense discussions and the presentation of a letter of introduction from a cleric in Baghdad affiliated with the group, the car is allowed to pass into Kufa, but not before some rhetoric.
"You should carry a gun. How can you leave Baghdad without a gun?" says one, who had just searched the journalists and car for weapons. "There are many kidnappers around looking to grab you. They do it so people will blame Medhi."
"We will drive America from Iraq and establish democracy in this country, God willing" shouts another who holds an rocket propelled grenade launcher at the ready.
"Go in peace," he shouts, while waving his RPG, as the car pulls away into town.
Once outside the mosque -- which Sadr operates and where journalists have been told he might make an appearance despite his most wanted status -- there are scores of heavily armed men checking every vehicle and setting up a second ring of effective -- if somewhat shabby -- fortifications.
But when the car is checked this time and the letter produced, the look on the young militiaman's face is clear and embarrassing: He can't read. Another Medhi Army member is brought forward to check the document and turns out he's from Baghdad and knows the journalists.
"Peace be on to you, friends," he shouts. "Are you well? Thank God!"
And with that he jumps into the car to escort the visitors to the mosque, where another round of bag, body and camera searches are conducted. Satellite telephones are politely confiscated from the reporters before they enter the mosque.
"No pictures of guns," states the commander in charge of the gate. The Mehdi Army it seems is concerned both about its reputation as a heavily armed militia and making sure that the U.S. forces don't get any information about how the armed militia deploys in the town it controls.
Inside, the mosque seems bigger than the town itself and certainly is holding more people. Almost a thousand men are milling about and half of them are pressed up against the side entrance staring expectantly at each new arrival, hoping to see their fugitive leader.
No one seems to know if he'll come. But the anticipation in the crowd is palpable until just minutes before noon prayer is to begin, a cluster of black turbans can be seen at the doorway and the crowd begins to wave hands and shout praises: "Yes, yes Moqtada. Praise to Ali."
Ali is considered a prophet second only to Mohammed in Shiite Islam. His shrine rests just kilometers away in Najaf.
Through the crowd, a very tough looking bunch of security guards and other clerics whisk Moqtada to the back of the mosque. The audience is ecstatic, for their leader, one of the most wanted men in Iraq, is about to speak to the faithful in his hometown.
And a few minutes later, with the showmanship of a dour James Brown, he steps to the microphone and begins to speak.
First he expresses regret for the deaths of the police and civilians in suicide bombings in Basra and condemns the perpetrators. Then he appeals to the rest of the world to assist Iraq in its fight against American occupation and injustice.
He then moves on to the root causes of all of Iraq's problems.
"I blame (the American-appointed) Governing Council for all of these problems," he says in a flat monotone, leaving his only his words to supply his famous charisma. "And I will not be like them and behave like them, because they left Iraq under Saddam, but they also left their Islamic culture."
"And I will not shake hands with them, because they have shaken hands with (U.S. President George) Bush, whose hands are stained with the blood of Iraqis."
Another round of pro-Moqtada and anti-American chanting ensues. The young cleric wipes sweat of his doughy face -- as the mosque is hot and crowded -- and continues with a lecture on his love of democracy and rule of law, which counters his critics' claim that he wants to establish an Islamic state in Iraq.
Rule of law is particularly important to Sadr, as he is currently wanted on charges that he conspired to kill a rival cleric last year.
"I'll obey all the laws that come from a democratic government that the people choose," he continues. "And I want a fair constitution signed by all Iraqis."
This draws murmurs of approval from the crowd, but he immediately switches to a more popular subject: fighting the Americans.
"Tell America, tell all of the world, tell the Governing Council, that I have God by my side and they have the devil by theirs, and to my followers, I say, do not think we are not powerful. We can fight and defeat anyone!" he says as the chanting begins again.
"See your brothers in Fallujah," he continues. "See how they died to protect their city."
And then he made the statements that will lead all news reports of the day -- a warning that his followers are willing to conduct suicide bombings if necessary.
"Some of the mujahedin brothers have told me they want to carry out martyrdom operations, but I am postponing it," Sadr said. "When we are forced to do so and when our city and holy sites are attacked, we will all be time bombs in the face of the enemy."
And with that he led the group in a short series of prayers and the reporters were forced to leave the mosque and strongly warned -- at gunpoint -- not to take pictures outside of the men, the cars or Sadr.
Corralled in a corner of the parking lot, half a dozen journalists wait for Sadr to leave. The Medhi guards are polite, but firm in their instructions, no one leaves before Sadr and no one takes a photo or makes a phone call. It's a time to pray that an American helicopter does not appear and attack the queuing convoy as the implication is clear what will happen to the reporters if something befalls Sadr.
"Please don't die, please don't even (expletive) trip," one reporter mutters as Sadr comes out to the vehicles. Two pick up trucks filled with Medhi Army go first at high speed, followed by two nondescript sedans with tinted windows. As they pull away, the guards lower their AK-47s and warmly smile at the reporters.
"Thank you," they say to each one. "Go in peace."