Rebel Cleric Calls for Uprising as Clashes Erupt in Najaf

By ALEX BERENSON

The New York Times

August 5, 2004

BAGHDAD, Aug. 5 — The radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr called for a national uprising against American and coalition forces today as a two-month truce between Mr. Sadr and the United States military collapsed.

In Baghdad and Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq, insurgents loyal to Mr. Sadr prepared for clashes with American and British troops.

But heavy fighting appeared confined to Najaf, a Shiite holy city 100 miles south of Baghdad that is a Sadr stronghold. An American marine helicopter was shot down in Najaf this morning, although the crew was reported rescued.

American and Iraqi casualty figures were unavailable as of late afternoon.

Each side blamed the other for the breakdown of the truce, which comes less than two weeks before a national political conference that Mr. Sadr has refused to attend.

Mr. Sadr, a 31-year-old cleric whose father, Mohammed, was revered by many poor Shiites, has become the leading opponent of the United States Army and interim Iraqi government, though he is a deeply polarizing figure here. Many Iraqis view him as hotheaded, but others believe he is a courageous leader who has risked his life to defy the United States.

"Fight the blasphemous, fight the Americans," Mr. Sadr said in a statement issued in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Whether Mr. Sadr's call for rebellion will provoke clashes nationwide, as it did in April, or fizzle out, as it did last October, is unclear.

But Baghdad, which has been recently racked by a spate of kidnappings of both Iraqis and Westerners, was extremely tense as word of Mr. Sadr's call for an uprising spread.

While there are no reliable estimates of the exact size of the Mahdi Army, the rebels loyal to Mr. Sadr, he can unquestionably bring thousands of armed men into the streets.

In Sadr City, a huge Shiite slum in northwest Baghdad, masked Mahdi Army guerrillas controlled intersections and checked cars. Iraqi policemen and American soldiers remained outside the area, while military helicopters roared low over central Baghdad.

The truce has been unraveling for several days. It first frayed on Sunday, when the police arrested Methal al-Hasnawi, a representative of Mr. Sadr's, in Karbala, near Najaf. On Monday, marines and Mahdi insurgents battled near a maternity hospital in Najaf, and several rebels died.

On Tuesday, American troops approached Mr. Sadr's house in Najaf, according to Dr. Salama al-Khafaji, a spokeswoman for a government-appointed council that mediates between Mr. Sadr and American authorities. Fighting intensified on Wednesday night, when troops again approached Mr. Sadr's house, Dr. Khafaji said.

"The Americans escalated the whole situation by coming back with their armored vehicles and trespassing," Dr. Khafaji said.

But the American military blamed Mr. Sadr for the breakdown in the truce. Marines were sent to Najaf's main police station at 3 a.m. after Mr. Sadr's forces attacked the station with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, according to a statement from Central Command, which oversees American troops in Iraq. The Iraqi police and national guard troops defended the station, and the marines did not fire shots or take any casualties, according to the statement.

"The attack is an overt violation of the cease-fire agreement reached in June between coalition forces and Muktada Sadr," the statement said. In addition, Mahdi Army insurgents have recently kidnapped six Iraqi police officers in Najaf, according to the statement. Five have been released, but one remains captive, it said.

Iraqi employees of The New York Times in Baghdad contributed reporting for this article.