By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 2, 2004; 4:05 PM
BAGHDAD -- Rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr warned Friday that the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq had not ended with the recent handover of limited political powers to an interim government and called on his followers to continue resisting the large presence of foreign troops in the country.
"I want to draw your attention to the fact there was no transferring of authority," Jabir Khafaji, a top Sadr lieutenant, read from a letter during Friday prayers at a mosque in the southern city of Kufa where Sadr commonly preaches. "What has changed is the name only."
Khafaji also demanded that the new Iraqi government defer to the Shiite religious leadership based in the neighboring holy city of Najaf. He asserted that the Mahdi Army, Sadr's black-clad militia recently decimated in two months of battle with U.S. forces, is "the army of Iraq."
"I ask the Iraqis to keep rejecting the occupation and call for independence," Khafaji said.
Sadr's comments, echoed by another of his top aides here in Baghdad, appeared to be a step away from the conciliatory calls for unity he made last week after coordinated insurgent attacks killed more than 100 Iraqis. His words could present an early test for Iraq's unelected government now seeking to shore up its legitimacy following Monday's handover of limited political authority after 15 months of occupation.
Since intensive fighting between U.S. forces and Sadr's militia in several southern cities ended in a cease-fire last month, Sadr has announced plans to form a political party and participate in national elections scheduled for January. More recently, Sadr condemned the foreign influence within Iraq's diffuse insurgency, noting that most of the victims of urban bombings have been ordinary Iraqis.
A move now by Sadr would strain Iraq's embryonic security forces and likely require intervention by some of the 138,000 U.S. soldiers who remain in the country as the chief guarantors of the interim government's stability. U.S. forces are trying to maintain a lower profile in the wake of the handover, but Sadr and simmering trouble spots are testing their ability to do so.
"They are supposed to be reducing their troops," Sheik Aws Khafaji, a Sadr representative from southern Iraq, said during a sermon before 2,000 worshippers in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood named for Moqtada Sadr's slain father, a revered ayatollah. "We do not want to break the oars of the interim authority." Later, he called on Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi interim prime minister, to use "faithful, nationalist Iraqi oars and don't use oars that have written on them 'Made in the USA.' "
The U.S. military reported that a Marine was killed in combat Friday and a second died of wounds sustained a day earlier in a restive province west of Baghdad that contains the city of Fallujah, the target of several U.S. air strikes over the past week. On Thursday, one Marine was killed in combat in the same area.
In addition, the insurgency showed Friday morning that it will continue striking targets associated with the occupation, firing rockets at hotels used by foreign journalists and U.S. government contractors.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m., a rocket struck the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel in downtown Baghdad, sending debris clattering from the upper floors. The rocket damaged the hotel's 10th floor, but no one was injured. A second rocket hit the nearby Baghdad Hotel, where several people reportedly were wounded.
Moments later, with city streets nearly empty on the Muslim Sabbath, a minibus exploded in flames near the hotels in Firdous Square, where U.S. troops pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003. There were conflicting reports regarding the attack. But U.S. and Iraqi officials eventually said the bus had been used to fire the rockets and tipped over by the force of the launch, detonating more weapons inside.
U.S. officials said the insurgents' target may have been the Green Zone, the site of the U.S. Embassy, across the Tigris River from the hotels. Two other rocket attacks occurred later in the day, one near another hotel used by Westerners and the other near the headquarters of an Islamic party, where a guard reportedly was wounded.
Also Friday, two Turkish civilians who had been missing for more than a month were freed by insurgents. The hostages -- an air conditioner repairman and his assistant -- were freed after their company agreed to stop doing business in Iraq. A Pakistani driver was also released, Iraqi officials said.
There was also evidence that Iraqis were coming together behind their new interim government.
At the Mother of All Villages Mosque in Baghdad, Sheik Ahmad Abdul Ghafoor called on nearly 2,000 worshippers to "close ranks and unite, because in unity there is strength and in division weakness." Ghafoor, who leads the Sunni Muslim mosque, warned that the months between now and January, when Iraqis are to elect a transitional government, will be difficult ones.
"This will be a test period," he said. "These months will end, but good deeds and patriotic fervor shall remain far longer."
Special correspondents Khalid Saffar and Hoda Lazim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Kufa contributed to this article.